The news sent Chipotle’s stock tumbling and made many wonder whether it’s safe to eat at the chain that was rocked by multiple outbreaks of foodborne illnesses in 2015.
However, a food poisoning expert told Business Insider the chain isn’t necessarily doing anything wrong.
According to food safety advocate and attorney Bill Marler, the reason food poisoning scandals continue to haunt Chipotle is more rooted in psychology than food safety.
“I think that a lot of it just has to do with the fact that people are very acutely aware of what happened at Chipotle in 2015,” Marler told Business Insider. “To have a norovirus outbreak, E. coli outbreak, salmonella outbreak within months of each other is unprecedented. So, I think that, along with media and social media, heightened people’s attention.”
According to Chipotle’s executive director of food safety, the symptoms reported by the customers who got sick are “consistent with norovirus,” which spreads quickly and causes vomiting and diarrhea.
Norovirus cases, Marler says, are a “nightmare scenario” and are responsible for 32 million of the 38 million foodborne illnesses in the US every year.
“There are a lot of outbreaks that happen that never get any press coverage,” Marler said. That’s because they are also incredibly difficult to track to a specific source.
Because Chipotle’s 2015 E. coli scandal was so heavily publicized, people continue to associate the chain with food poisoning, despite its major efforts to improve food safety. So, when someone gets sick after eating Chipotle, they’re more likely to blame the burrito they had for dinner than the raw oyster they had at happy hour, even though the oyster is actually is more likely to carry foodborne illnesses.
“The vast majority of foodborne illnesses are never linked to anything,” Marler said. “Most people think the thing that made them sick was the last thing they ate — which is mostly wrong.”
In Marler’s words, Chipotle can’t catch a break.
“Those poor bastards,” he remarked.
According to Marler, there is a good chance that the Chipotle in Sterling, Virginia, was contaminated by a customer who was infected by the norovirus, which then spread through the restaurant. If that’s the case, there isn’t much that Chipotle could have done to prevent the outbreak.
There’s also not much you need to worry about if you’re craving Chipotle for dinner, since it’s unlikely the virus will spread to other locations. And, if the outbreak is linked to norovirus, it’s unlikely to impact other locations.
“It’s unfortunate for these people who got sick, but, it’s unfortunate [for Chipotle] too,” Marler said.