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Health & Wellness

Is it safe to eat at Chipotle after E. coli outbreak? Food-safety experts weigh in

The recent news about an outbreak of food poisoning at Washington state Chipotle restaurants may have you wondering if it’s safe to eat out anywhere.

The good news, experts say, is that food poisoning at restaurants is pretty uncommon. Still, there are no guarantees — not even an A-rating at your favorite eating establishment.

“You are better off eating at a restaurant with a high rating versus a low one,” said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, former director of public health for Los Angeles County and currently a professor of health policy and management at the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a professor of pediatrics at the UCLA Geffen School of Medicine.

“I put the grading system in place in Los Angeles County and it clearly made a difference, reducing hospitalizations for foodborne illnesses,” he said. “But does a high rating guarantee you won’t get sick? No.”

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It’s not possible to know which foods were carrying the E. coli bacteria at the Chipotle restaurants until investigators finish their work, Fielding said, adding, “my guess, and it’s only a surmise, is that it’s more likely to be the fresh vegetables than the chicken, for example. The vegetables may have had a fairly high dose of E. coli and then even washing may not easily overcome the contamination.”

Outbreaks like this, Fielding said, remind everyone about food safety. Once the investigations are done and experts figure out the source of the contamination, Chipotle restaurants “will be paying so much attention to food hygiene that they will be the safest places to eat.”

Gene J. Puskar / AP
The door at a Chipotle Mexican Grill.

About 10 percent of foodborne outbreaks are now linked to produce, said Dr. Cynthia Sears, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Even when produce comes in clean, it can be contaminated if it comes in contact with meat carrying E. coli, Sears said. That can happen if kitchen staff aren’t careful keeping meats and produce apart, and using separate knives and cutting boards for them.

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The riskiest food item is hamburger because a single package of meat can contain meat from many cows, Sears said, adding that it takes very little of the E. coli bacteria to make someone very sick.

E. coli facts

  • It usually takes three to four days from the time you’ve ingested contaminated food until you start showing symptoms, Sears said. It can take longer if you took in a very small amount of bacteria.
  • The first signs of bacterial food poisoning can be cramps and diarrhea, Fielding said. “And the diarrhea can turn bloody,” he added. “In a small percentage of cases you can end up with very serious complications" — including kidney failure.
  • There’s nothing you can do to protect yourself from becoming ill if you’ve eaten contaminated food, Sears said. If you think you might have been exposed, you just have to wait and look out for symptoms.
  • If you start to develop symptoms, you need to contact your doctor right away. “Getting in early for medical care is what’s most important if you get sick,” Sears said.
  • Don’t expect your doctor to hand you a prescription for antibiotics. The most important treatment is to stay hydrated. “Some antibiotics may induce the organisms to produce more toxins,” Sears said.
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