A food-borne illness outbreak that hit 700 Chipotle customers in Ohio last month was caused by a type of bacteria that grows on meat and pre-cooked food that’s been left at unsafe temperatures, health officials said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, customers’ stool samples tested positive for Clostridium perfringens, a bacteria that thrives at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit — a range known as the “danger zone” among food safety experts.
While the agency didn’t identify the specific food involved in the outbreak, the likely culprit is meat that was left out — not cold enough and not hot enough — for several hours after it was cooked, said Lee-Ann Jaykus, a food microbiologist at North Carolina State University.
In response, Chipotle brass said Thursday it will be retraining “all restaurant employees nationwide beginning next week on food safety and wellness protocols,” chief executive Brian Niccol said in a statement.
Shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill were recently off 4.2 percent at $503.70.
The local health agency in Ohio, the Delaware General Health District, said the CDC will continue to conduct testing. Local officials identified 647 people who self-reported gastrointestinal symptoms after eating at a Chipotle in Powell, Ohio, from July 26 through July 30.
“Products typically associated with this pathogen are hot items,” said Traci Whittaker, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Ohio officials added that they have been frustrated with Chipotle, believing that they could have solved the mystery earlier if they’d had access to the food at the eatery. Instead, they were forced to rely on customers who brought them their leftover Chipotle meals.
“The restaurant threw out all of the food on the day that it closed,” Whittaker said. “It would have been nice to get that food to test it. If the food was the [culprit]it could have shown us a pathogen more quickly.”
Food safety experts agree.
“If you even think that your product is associated with an outbreak, you don’t throw it away,” said Jaykus, adding that “a lawyer might say something different, but from a public health standpoint, you don’t throw it away.”
Chipotle did not immediately respond to a question about its protocols.
While there is no FDA requirement for restaurants to preserve food that might be involved in a food-borne illness outbreak, public health consultant Roy Costa told The Post that doing so could help investigators quickly identify the problem.
“When you have an unresolved problem like Chipotle’s earlier outbreaks and the problem keeps popping up, you have to question why they haven’t gotten to the root cause,” Costa said.