Chipotle touts organic and fresh ingredients, making it a fan favorite for many parents, but perhaps not anymore, given the terrible year that the fast-food chain is struggling to recover from. 2015 ended poorly for Chipotle, with at least five viral or bacterial outbreaks in various branches of their restaurant chain between July and December. Three of those five outbreaks were associated with naturally occurring bacteria in food (Salmonella and E.coli) and possible food mishandling; the other two outbreaks were directly linked to sick employees (who had the norovirus) who spread their illness through improper hand-washing. These type of issues are both a public health and a parenting nightmare, since the spread of those three contagions are enough to make anyone violently ill, and for children, dangerously so. And soon, it seems, spreading the latter through poor hand hygiene in the workplace could be considered a crime.
There Were So Many Issues at Chipotle – What Exactly Happened?
According to Food Safety News , the first of the five major outbreaks occurred in July 2015. That month, 5 people fell ill with E.coli O157 – the same type of E.coli that first gained public recognition in 2006 with the multi-state E.coli outbreaks from contaminated Taco Bell meat and spinach. In August and September of 2015, 64 people reportedly contracted salmonella, allegedly from tomatoes at a Chipotle in Minnesota. In October 2015, a multi-state outbreak of E.coli 026 sickened 53 diners across 9 states. While that specific cause has not been identified, the fact that it’s multi-state typically indicates a food source that was distributed from the same source to multiple locations.
These three outbreaks are largely quality and cross-contamination control related, and suggest that food preparation and storage training is in order. However, discussing the structure of Chipotle’s new food safety program is beyond the scope of this article, and frankly probably pretty boring, especially since all we need to know as consumers is that the company is now determined to become an industry leader in food safety and eliminate any public concerns about their food.
What I’d like to tackle here are the two remaining outbreaks, which were of Norovirus. Unlike the Salmonella and E.coli outbreaks, they were both isolated incidents (one in Simi Valley, CA in August 2015, and the other in Boston, MA in December 2015), and they originated from a human source (like a sick employee handling food). While these two cases stress the importance of employee food handling and health protocols, they also carry a very important lessons for parents.
What is Norovirus?
When a sick person experiences either diarrhea or vomiting from the norovirus, microscopic particles can easily contaminate nearby countertops and surfaces, as well as that person’s hands. Worse still, it can be very tough to eliminate and kill, so only very thorough hand-washing and surface sanitization combats the contamination.
Before you start imagining a sick person being…explosive, and the norovirus floating through the air like the fuzzy seeds of a dandelion infecting everything around them, I would urge you to consider that it’s so much simpler than that.
Think about how many times a day you wash your hands.
How many of those times are you in such a hurry that it feels less like hand-washing and more like hand-rinsing with a small amount of soap?
Hand washing is the number one way to prevent or reduce norovirus outbreaks, period. With that in mind, consider this stunning statistic: the norovirus causes 19-21 MILLION CASES of gastroenteritis per YEAR (read: watery diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain).
That’s roughly the population of the entire state of New York.
According to the CDC, these 19-21 million cases involve 56,000 – 76,000 hospital visits, and 570-800 deaths. Though it doesn’t usually make headlines unless a cruise ship is involved (likely due to the focused magnitude of the outbreak), over 50% of norovirus outbreaks occur at health care facilities, including nursing homes and hospitals. The rest of them are likely direct contact or indirect with someone who is infectious, as in, touching contaminated skin and surfaces.
You can imagine how easy it is for a contaminated set of hands or surface to easily transmit a virus of this nature into a human, by way of their mouth. Which is why the norovirus is THE number one cause of food-borne illness in the United States.
What are the lessons Parents can share with their kids?
The bottom line for parents is to learn to wash your hands properly for the sake of your health, and teach your children the same healthy habits as well. If your kids ever doubt that one person can make a difference in the world, you might remind them that one person not properly washing their hands can make hundreds of people sick. Here’s a basic rundown you can teach to your children, taken from the CDC’s hand washing recommendations:
When should you wash your hands?
- Before, during, and after preparing food
- Before eating food
- Before and after caring for someone who is sick
- Before and after treating a cut or wound
- After using the toilet
- After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
- After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
- After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
- After touching garbage
What is the right way to wash your hands?
- Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
- Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
- Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
- Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
- Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.
Remember, it only takes one person, or in the case of Chipotle, one employee who is sick but is too worried about letting their team down, or too dependent on the day’s wages to stay home, to cause a norovirus outbreak. And that outbreak can be devastating and even fatal to those who get sick from it. Imagine being able to trace how one person’s lack of hand-washing to another’s severe illness, or even death – two tragic, preventable events.
This is where it becomes a crime: because of the actions of one employee, a Simi Valley, California, Chipotle has been subpoenaed as a part of a criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
If a grand jury decides to press charges based on the evidence (both scientific and otherwise), this would set a precedent that allows for it to be a Federal crime to not properly wash one’s hands when commercially handling food. While the Food Safety Modernization Act gives the FDA more authority to inspect, shut-down, and penalize food companies who fudge food safety test results (remember the gross negligence involved in the Peanut Corporation of America’s fatal Salmonella outbreak in 2009) or who show incompetence in their food safety programs (think Blue Bell Ice Cream’s Listeria outbreak), this isn’t that. This is a case of directly linking poor hand-washing hygiene to negligence, which stresses the incredibly importance of good hygiene in food handling. The science behind this type of contamination is pretty clear – there are proven methods to decrease and eliminate risks, and they should be taken. Both in restaurants, and right in your own home.
Check out this handy graphic for more information on hand-washing best practices to protect you and your children: