Recent Chipotle E.coli outbreaks spark discussion about food safety, health risks
By Andrea Schlitt
The familiar smell of slightly burnt chicken and flour tortillas embraces you as you make a routine stop at your local Chipotle. You mindlessly recite your usual order: a chicken burrito with black beans, brown rice, mild salsa, guacamole, and lettuce. You can’t wait to take a bite and feel the comfort of a warm burrito resting in your stomach. But this time, it’s different. There’s something out there that could taint your food and make you spend the next few days with stomach cramps, a fever and possibly even kidney failure.
The culprit is E. Coli, and the recent outbreak in multiple Chipotle restaurants around the U.S. has made many customers cautious. Still, others remain unsuspecting and devoted to getting their weekly dose of their favorite food. But why do outbreaks even happen in the first place? And what can Chipotle-lovers out there do to avoid the consequences?
Breaking it down
The first place to look is at the bacteria itself. The E. coli bacteria lives in human and animal digestive tracts. According to WebMD, there are many different kinds that exist, but specific types can cause kidney failure, and ultimately death. The most common origin of E. Coli exists in raw meat. If the infected meat isn’t cooked to the proper temperature, the bacteria will survive and then get into your digestive tract when you eat it. However, raw dairy products and vegetables can also carry this bacteria if they haven’t properly gone through pasteurization, a process which involves heating substances to kill certain organisms that can cause diseases or unwanted fermentation.
For Chipotle specifically, the strain of E.coli found was from produce. Outbreaks can occur when a specific type of food isn’t properly treated coming from the producer, and bringing it into the restaurant can contaminate the other items. However, these outbreaks aren’t usually common in large restaurant chains such as Chipotle, where there are multiple measures taken to prevent them. Although there are precautions, something as simple as not thoroughly washing produce or cooking meat for a couple minutes less could’ve caused the outbreak.
Advice for prevention
Unfortunately, there isn’t much that can be done to prevent infection if you’ve already eaten food that contains the bacteria. However, most of the time people recover after a week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you experience severe abdominal cramps, diarrhea, or vomiting, there’s a possibility of and E.coli infection. If these symptoms persist, it’s best to go to the doctor and have lab tests done to determine the cause and severity. These lab tests usually consist of examining stool samples for Shiga toxins, commonly found in E.coli and related bacteria.
If the test comes back positive, doctors usually avoid prescribing antibiotics because of the possibility of serious complications. Minor symptoms can be treated with lots of rest and fluids, but if the symptoms are severe, the patient will be hospitalized and given a IV fluids and kidney dialysis if necessary, according to Mayo Clinic.
Precautions against the bacteria can be taken outside of Chipotle restaurants as well. If you’re making your own food, it’s always important to follow proper cleaning and cooking guidelines, which include cooking meat thoroughly, avoiding cross-contamination, and avoiding unpasteurized products. In addition, simple things like making sure to wash your hands avoiding certain foods if you are prone to food poisoning will put you less at risk.
For students at MVHS, the outbreak can affect food choices and the likelihood of going to a Chipotle anytime soon, or it can be treated indifferently. Sophomore Mritthika Harish enjoys eating at Chipotle, and usually goes once a month. When she heard about the outbreak, she wasn’t sure what to think since she didn’t want it to affect her food choices. However, Harish makes sure to take precautions by washing her fruits and vegetables thoroughly at home.
“Mistakes happen everywhere, you can’t really use one place to stop eating your favorite food,” Harish said. “People should be aware of it but unless it’s really close to their place it shouldn’t stop them.” The nearest Chipotle location with reported cases of E. coli is in Turlock, CA, almost a two-hour drive away from Cupertino.
On the other hand, sophomore Kavin Sivakumar doesn’t eat at Chipotle normally, but thinks that students should be more cautious to protect their health. When there was an E.coli outbreak in cucumbers earlier this year, he made sure to avoid eating them, especially when they were served in restaurants like Subway.
He has also seen problems with the way food has been treated in some chain restaurants like Chipotle. He recalls a time when an employee dropped food on the ground and used the same gloves for handling food to pick it up.
“I feel like if you’re going to eat out anywhere you should be mindful of what you’re eating and where you’re eating, and what’s going on at that place.” Sivakumar said.
Students may experience mixed feelings on this issue, but one thing remains clear. An outbreak shouldn’t completely limit your food choices, but it’s important to be aware of the risks and take the necessary health precautions against E. coli. And for the time being, you may want to reconsider whether the warm feeling of a burrito resting in your stomach is worth the possibility of pain and suffering later on.