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Chipotle says media, CDC added hype to e. coli outbreak

Slumping sales and falling stock prices have plagued Chipotle in the weeks since the Mexican food chain began battling a multi-state outbreak of the E. Coli bug. The outbreak began in late October and has been blamed for sickening 52 people in nine states.

On Monday, two local women were being tested for E. Coli after reporting that they became ill after eating at Chipotle in Kennesaw. 

Chipotle closed a Boston location in Cleveland Circle on Tuesday after about 80 students from Boston College reported symptoms after eating there. Chipotle executives have said they believe the illnesses were the result of an isolated case of norovirus, not the E. Coli outbreak. Students were being tested for both.

While acknowledging the concerns, Chipotle executives also said the media and CDC are adding extra hype to the issue through their reporting methods.

On Tuesday, a company executive, part of a group speaking at an investors event, had some pretty harsh words for Atlanta-based CDC, according to an article in Advertising Age.

"It's been fueled by the sort of unusual and even unorthodox way the CDC has chosen to announce cases related to the original outbreak in the Northwest," the executive said.

The CDC, said the unidentified executive, has not announced new cases, but cases that were reported to the CDC by other reporting agencies.

"We are not doing anything unusual or out of the ordinary when it comes to reporting this particular outbreak," said CDC spokesman, Tom Skinner. "Our main mission at the CDC is to protect the public's health. Whenever we investigate an outbreak like we are doing with this one, our mission is to provide information to the public so they can do what is necessary to protect their health."

Skinner explained that there is a two to three week lag in reporting of E. Coli cases to the CDC. For example, someone may eat at a restaurant and then go through an incubation period, which is three to four days for E. coli. It takes several more days to go to the doctor and get a stool culture to test for the infecting bacteria.

"By the time the case gets reported to the state health department and the bacteria is characterized and uploaded into our database so we can compare this bacteria to others that may be circulating, it takes on average about two to three weeks. That is why we are just now seeing cases being reported that occurred on or around Nov. 10," Skinner said.

The Chipotle executive went on to say that news reports make it seem as if the outbreak is growing when the E. coli cases occurred during a window from Oct. 24 to early November.

"Because the media likes to write sensational headlines you'll probably see, you know, when somebody sneezes … 'Ah, it's E. coli from Chipotle' for a little bit of time," he added.

Company executives said once the CDC allows them to, they will use open letters in newspapers, interviews, traditional marketing (including coupons) and social media to let consumers know it is safe to eat at the restaurants.

According to the Ad Age story, Chipotle has already instituted new food safety methods including sanitizing and hermetically sealing produce that has been prepared in commissaries instead of the restaurants.

There has been much talk in the past year about Chipotle's increased prices due to higher beef costs, but Chipotle execs said they would not increase prices to offset higher food safety costs.

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About the Author

Nedra Rhone has been a features reporter with the AJC for 10 years. She’s written about everything from fashion to food to news.