Chipotle has been linked to another E. coli outbreak being investigated by the CDC

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Image: AP / Steven Senne
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Chipotle would presumably like nothing better than to put its recent spate of health scares behind it, and over the last week or so the company has looked ready to start doing that. An outbreak of norovirus in Boston that sickened around 140 people appeared to finally stop spreading. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control hadn’t reported any new E. coli cases. Chipotle founder and co-CEO Steve Ells went on NBC’s Today to publicly apologize for the scares and promote Chipotle’s reinvigorated commitment to food safety.

But on Monday (Dec. 21) more bad news arrived: The CDC said it is investigating “another, more recent outbreak” of E. coli linked to Chipotle’s restaurants. Health officials have identified five sick people across Kansas, North Dakota, and Oklahoma, all of whom said they ate at Chipotle in the week before falling ill. These cases are currently being examined separately because it is “not known if these infections are related to the larger, previously reported outbreak,” the CDC says. Chipotle’s stock fell 3.5% to $522.01 on Monday.

“We have indicated before that we expected that we may see additional cases stemming from this, and the CDC is now reporting some additional cases,” Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said in an email. Chipotle’s recent health woes began at the end of October when nearly two dozen people were reported sick in Washington and Oregon, prompting Chipotle to close dozens of stores. Since then, the company’s stock has lost nearly 20% of its value. Chipotle also warned in an SEC filing earlier this month that business had been “extremely volatile” and it anticipated sales falling 8% to 11% in the fourth quarter.

In an effort to regain customers’ trust, Chipotle has reexamined and overhauled its food safety protocols. New procedures include blanching certain fresh produce (briefly submerging it in boiling water) and conducting frequent DNA-based safety tests on small samples of ingredients before they’re shipped to restaurants. The company has dedicated a web page to explaining its renewed food safety commitments. “With all of these programs in place, we are confident that we can achieve a level of food safety risk that is near zero,” Arnold says.

That said, repairing damage to the Chipotle brand will likely be tougher than implementing new food safety procedures. Chipotle more so than many fast-casual restaurants has built its reputation on the promise of quick, convenient meals that also are made with sustainable, high-quality ingredients. “Food with integrity” is the philosophical core of its business. Repeated run ins with E. coli make that a tough promise to sell.