Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. said Friday that it will conduct DNA-based tests to ensure the quality and safety of all produce as health officials increased the number of consumers sickened in an ongoing E. coli outbreak.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday that the E. coli outbreak linked to Chipotle now includes seven more people in three new states, including Illinois, Maryland and Pennsylvania, for a total count of 52 sickened in nine states.
Earlier reports included illnesses in Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, California, Ohio and New York.
The seven new ill people include two in Ohio and one in California, Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington, respectively. Two of those fell ill in October, and five in November.
Of the three most recent cases, only one said they ate at Chipotle the week before their illness began. However, overall, 47 of the 52 ill people ate at a Chipotle restaurant before they fell ill, the CDC said.
Most of the illnesses were in Washington, with 27 cases, and Oregon, with 13 cases. Twenty people have been hospitalized. There have been no reported deaths.
Health officials said a meal or ingredient from Chipotle was likely the cause, but they have not yet identified the specific source of the outbreak.
Meanwhile, Chipotle revealed several more aggressive steps the Denver-based operator is taking to enhance food safety and food handling practices.
The first step is high-resolution testing of all fresh produce before it is shipped to restaurants, a program that company officials described as far exceeding requirements of state and federal regulatory agencies, as well as industry standards.
Chipotle tested some produce previously, but Chris Arnold, director of communications, said the testing will include a high number of samples for small lots of food, though he did not give details on how the program would be implemented.
“It’s very robust,” Arnold wrote in an email. “We are doing some testing now, but are really enhancing it. The high-resolution testing we are implementing now is an industry-leading program.”
Additionally, Chipotle will initiate end-of-shelf-life testing, which will look at ingredient samples to ensure quality specifications are maintained through the shelf life of products.
With the data collected from the testing, Chipotle will measure the performance of its vendors and suppliers, the company said.
Arnold added that the goal is not supplier accountability, but food safety.
“That data will also allow us to measure performance of vendors and suppliers, but the aim is to enhance food safety throughout the system,” he said.
In addition to testing, the company will also enhance internal training to ensure all employees thoroughly understand the company’s high standards for food safety and handling, the company said.
The more aggressive practices are part of a plan recommended by IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group, food safety consultants brought in after the recent E. coli outbreak.
“While Chipotle’s food safety practices were already well within industry norms, I was asked to design a more robust food-safety program to ensure the highest level of safety and the best quality of all meals served at Chipotle,” Mansour Samadpour, IEH Laboratories CEO, said in a statement. “I am happy to report that our proposed program was adopted in its entirety, without any modification.
“While it is never possible to completely eliminate all risk, this program eliminates or mitigates risk to a level near zero, and will establish Chipotle as the industry leader in this area,” he added.
Chipotle said thousands of food sample tests from the 11 restaurants linked to the outbreak have shown no E. coli, and no employees have been identified as having E. coli since the incident began.
Steve Ells, Chipotle chairman and co-CEO, said in a statement: “When I opened the first Chipotle 22 years ago, I offered a focused menu of just a few things made with fresh ingredients and prepared using classic cooking techniques. We do the same thing today, even with nearly 2,000 restaurants, and we are working harder than ever to ensure that our food is safe and delicious.”