Just last weekend, a rash of E. coli cases in Washington state and Oregon prompted Chipotle to temporarily shutter 43 of its restaurants there. No deaths have been reported. On Tuesday, health officials in Oregon and Washington said the number of cases has jumped to at least 37, with 25 in Washington and 12 in Oregon.
The current outbreak follows one involving Salmonella and tomatoes served at Chipotles in Minnesota, where more than 60 people reported getting sick in August and September. In a media briefing Tuesday about the rise in multistate foodborne outbreaks nationally, Kathleen Gensheimer, a senior FDA official in charge of food safety, said the restaurant chain's executives want to meet with federal health officials to "discuss what practices might be contributing" to the problem.
A new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes clear the danger these pathogens pose. In analyzing the illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths from foodborne outbreaks that took place in two or more states between 2010 and 2014, it found 120 multistate outbreaks. Although just a fraction of the more than 4,000 incidents reported during that period, the outbreaks accounted for 34 percent of hospitalizations and 56 percent of deaths.
CDC Director Thomas Frieden said the latest multistate outbreaks are more dangerous because they involve deadlier germs. "On average, there are about two per month, and they can be big and they can be lethal," he said during the briefing.
Salmonella accounted for most of the illnesses and hospitalizations. It was also the cause of the three largest outbreaks, which were traced to eggs, chicken and raw ground tuna. Salmonella outbreaks involved nearly twice as many food categories as any other pathogen. Fruit, seeded vegetables, sprouts, nuts and seeds were all contaminated.
Listeria killed the most people; it was responsible for 57 of the 66 deaths during the five-year period. A single outbreak of contaminated cantaloupe in 2011 killed 33 people.
Imported foods accounted for 18 of the multistate outbreaks. Foods from Mexico, including mangoes and papayas, were the leading source in those events, followed by foods from Turkey such as pine nuts, tahini, and pomegranate seeds.
Regardless of an outbreak's magnitude, the toll can be significant. Contaminated foods sicken an estimated 48 million Americans annually, leading to 128,000 hospitalizations and roughly 3,000 deaths, according to the CDC.
In September, the Food and Drug Administration finalized long-awaited rules that will require U.S. food manufacturers to make detailed plans to identify and prevent possible contamination risks in their production facilities. FDA said it expects to soon finalize additional rules regarding the growing and packaging of produce, as well as requirements that imported foods meet U.S. safety standards. Most of the rules haven't been put into place yet.
CDC officials are also using new gene-sequencing tools to track down the source of outbreaks faster. The agency has been using the technology for all investigations involving Listeria since September 2013 and will begin testing it for salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter next year.
This DNA "fingerprinting" allows public health officials to examine thousands of pieces of DNA to link germs in sick people with the pathogens in contaminated food more precisely than the standard techniques in use for the past two decades. So far, officials say, they've been able to solve some "cold cases" by finding contaminated food responsible for unsolved illnesses.
By using that technology and detailed questionnaires on what people ate before they got sick, CDC, FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture solved 9 Listeria outbreaks in the last year, compared with two the previous year.
The gene sequencing played a key role this spring in a major incident traced to Blue Bell Creameries, the nation's third-largest ice cream maker. The company issued the first recall in its 108-year history after ice cream tainted with Listeria monocytogenes, the bacteria that cause the infection listeriosis, was linked to three deaths at a Kansas hospital and illnesses in Kansas and Texas. CDC was able to determine that cases dating as far back as five years ago were related to the outbreak.