People Made Ill By Chipotle Retain High-Profile Lawyer

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
Nov. 3, 2015 5:08 a.m.

People who say they’ve been sickened by E. coli after eating at Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants in Oregon and Washington have retained a high-profile, Seattle-based attorney.


So far, the bacteria have sickened 23 people, a number health officials say will grow as the investigation into the outbreak continues. Nine of those people were hospitalized.

The restaurant chain has temporarily closed 43 stores around Washington and the Portland metro area after health officials notified the company about a possible E. coli outbreak linked to the restaurant chain.

The company declined an interview. But in a statement, it said only eight restaurants in the area were affected, and the high number of closures was done out of caution.

"The safety and well-being of our customers is always our highest priority," Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said in a statement.

Health officials said Chipotle is being cooperative.

Oregon State Health Officer Dr. Katrina Hedburg said during an outbreak like this, the first cases are usually the tip of the iceberg.

"We've gotten information out to people who've ate at Chipotle restaurants that if they've been sick, they should go see a health care provider," she said. "We do expect to see more attention in the next few days."

E. coli is a bacteria that can cause bloody diarrhea, fever and vomiting. It can sometimes be fatal.  
Officials are still trying to determine the specific kind of E. coli they're dealing with.

Hedburg said anyone who has developed symptoms after Oct. 12 and eaten at a Chipotle in the region would be a suspect case.

"The reason we're focusing on Chipotle is so far the cases that have been interviewed in Oregon and Washington – the vast majority of them, 80 or 90 percent, report having eaten at a Chipotle restaurant," she said.

Officials in Oregon and Washington say their investigation is in the early stages. They caution that the number of confirmed and suspected cases is likely to change by the hour.

As of Monday evening, health officials said there were 19 people linked to the outbreak in Washington, seven whom were hospitalized.

Another four cases were reported in Oregon. Two of those people were hospitalized.

Bill Marler has spent more than two decades as a food safety lawyer based in Seattle. So far, several families have retained him, including a couple in Portland.

"I've also been contacted by a family up near the Canadian border who ate in Burlington, Washington whose child was hospitalized," he said. "And then a couple who ate at the same Chipotle that my college age daughter eats at."

Marler told OPB All Things Considered host Kate Davidson that Chipotle should tighten controls on its supply chain:

Marler said this marks the third outbreak of a food-borne illness in Chipotle’s restaurants in as many months.


The chain had an outbreak of

Norovirus at a restaurant in Simi Valley, California in August

. There was also an

outbreak of Salmonella at several Chipotle restaurants in Minnesota


“I just do not recall ever seeing three, separate, distinct outbreaks," Marler said. "Three separate, distinct pathogens being linked to one restaurant chain over a 30- to 40-day period. It’s frankly unprecedented.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is testing food samples from the region’s Chipotle restaurants at its lab near Seattle. Health officials said they're hoping to get a better sense of the source of the E. coli and whether it’s only linked to Chipotle restaurants.

Dr. Jennifer Vines, acting health officer for Clark County, Washington, said the county’s health department made an early connection to a Chipotle restaurant and was able to alert others about the findings. She said her office is also carefully studying what people have reported eating.

“In a situation like this, with such wide-spread illness, we’re past thinking about a sick food handler," she said. "We are looking very closely at food questionnaires. And the kind of the suspects that rise to the top tend to be fresh items. Things like tomatoes and lettuce.”

Updated case numbers, as well as test results from the FDA, are expected later this week.

That data could give health experts a better sense not only of how many people have been sickened, but also the kind of E. coli and a better idea of the source.