When Chipotle was trying to contain the public fallout from an E. coli outbreak last year, it accused a US federal agency of scaremongering.
The agency was not amused.
The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which tracks disease outbreaks, was investigating the burrito chain’s food safety practices after a spate of E. coli cases that had sickened at least 60 people across 14 states and hospitalized 22. During the scare, the company watched—the chief financial officer would later describe it as eerie— as its once long lines shrank. As customers opted for other restaurants, the company took a hit.
Now Food Safety News reports that on Dec. 21, midway through the CDC probe, Chipotle’s corporate attorney sent a complaint letter (pdf) to the CDC, alleging that the agency was issuing too many public updates.
“The piecemeal release of information which does not inform the public of investigatory benchmarks or remedial steps by Chipotle only acts to create public panic,” wrote the attorney, Bryant “Corky” Messner.
Included in the letter was a complaint that the CDC had issued several updates in November (the first outbreak was reported in October) that were unnecessary.
While the initial announcement and early updates were generally necessary and appropriate, the ongoing updates were not useful and did not serve to inform the public of a significant health risk. Rather, these updates misrepresented the E. coli O26 outbreak as ongoing and unnecessarily intensified the public’s concern.
In response, the CDC bristled (pdf). On April 15 it sent Chipotle a point-by-point explanation for each of the concerns the restaurant chain had raised. In short, it said, it had followed the spirit and letter of the law.
We disagree that there was ‘no ongoing threat’ at the time of the web postings, particularly since the investigation of these two outbreaks linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill Restaurants has not identified a specific cause. A public health professional would not conclude that transmission had ceased until at least several weeks after the last reported case.
Since the outbreak, Chipotle has said, it has hired James Marsden, a meat-science professor at Kansas State University, to be its executive director of food safety. The company also has reviewed how it prepares each ingredient. Chipotle did not respond to a request for comment about its complaint to the CDC.