This is a breaking news story (as in the past two hours) and we will update it as more information becomes available.
Earlier today, a Chipotle in Sterling, Virginia temporarily closed for a deep cleaning and disinfection, following news of gastrointestinal illness among some of the restaurant patrons over the weekend.
So far, eight cases of illness and two hospitalizations have been reported by members of the public to Iwaspoisoned.com, from people who ate at the restaurant on Friday and Saturday of last week. The symptoms and timing seem consistent with norovirus, though it has not been confirmed yet, and the restaurant chain is working with local public health authorities on the investigation and resolution of the issue.
We will be interested to see what the investigation turns up. Statistically, norovirus is the most common cause of foodborne illness in the US, and in foodservice establishments, 70% of the time the outbreak can be traced back to an infected employee working with food. However, there have also been instances of norovirus arriving on food items, such as produce contaminated in a field or on its way to a restaurant. In either case, the virus always comes from the stool or vomit of an infected person.
You may remember a series of five foodborne illness outbreaks in 2015 that led Chipotle to revamp its food safety approach. This is because in addition to gastrointestinal misery for millions, foodborne illnesses bring with them a substantial financial burden. This includes not only the cost of care and work time lost for those who are sick, but also losses for companies who must discard product, close and clean establishments, or work to regain consumer trust. Case in point, the news reports we have on this story so far are mainly from business websites, as Chipotle’s stock value fell in response to this one possible norovirus outbreak.
We’ve actually been collaborating with the people behind Iwaspoisoned.com for a while now, and the realm of crowdsourcing for public health is a developing field, but one we think plays an important role. For example, many health departments around the US get updates on potential foodborne illness events in their area through Iwaspoisoned.com, and on several occasions, the website has identified outbreaks before anyone else has (including the 2015 norovirus outbreak at a Chipotle in Simi Valley, CA ). Logically, this can lead to more timely investigations and actions by health officials and food service establishments and prevent additional cases of disease, as well as give real-time information to the public.
We will post more on this story as information comes available.