SEATTLE — Chipotle began reopening its restaurants in the Pacific Northwest last week after an E. coli outbreak sickened about 45 people, a high-profile example of foodborne illnesses that are more common than the public realizes, health experts say.
Forty-three outposts of the Mexican food chain in Washington state and the Portland, Oregon, area were closed since the end of October because of the outbreak that hospitalized more than a dozen people.
That’s a tiny fraction of about 48 million cases of foodborne disease that occur in the U.S. each year, sending about 105,000 people to the hospital and resulting in 2,000 deaths, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That’s about one in seven people in the country getting sick from food every year.
Many of the illnesses involve people eating at home, but restaurant-related outbreaks are fairly common, said Dr. Paul Cieslak, medical director for communicable diseases at Oregon’s state health agency.
“Screw-ups can occur in any kitchen, but obviously it’s more dramatic when it occurs in a kitchen that serves 5,000 people,” said Cieslak, who has helped investigate the E. coli outbreak linked to Chipotle.
There are things people can do to ward off foodborne illnesses: wash your hands before making or eating food; avoid undercooked hamburger or raw shellfish; be careful about cross-contamination of raw meat; wash produce thoroughly; and steer clear of unpasteurized milk or juice.
But it’s impossible to avoid all bacteria on food, Cieslak said. For example, if lettuce or berries are contaminated with E. coli, it’s very difficult to wash them well enough to get to every nook and cranny where the bacteria are hiding.
“When you go to a restaurant, let’s face it — you’re kind of at the mercy of what’s going on in the kitchen,” he said.
Most reports of potential food-related illnesses pose no continuing risk to the public, so local health departments do not publicize them, according to Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Seattle and King County Public Health.
Of the more than 1,000 potential cases each year in the county that includes Seattle, only a handful are confirmed as food-related outbreaks. When confirmed cases pose an ongoing risk, an announcement is made.
Duchin said that’s why the most recent Chipotle-related outbreak attracted widespread attention, while a smaller case — five people sick from eating at one Seattle Chipotle restaurant in July — was not reported.
A Seattle attorney who specializes in food-safety cases was upset when he heard about the earlier illnesses.
“It just drives me nuts,” said Bill Marler, who built his national reputation with the 1993 E. coli outbreak at Seattle Jack in the Box restaurants. “This is the kind of thing that tears apart people’s belief that government can actually do stuff correctly and good.”
Chipotle has announced several new efforts to improve food safety, including testing fresh produce, raw meat and dairy items before they arrive in restaurants.
“We have also retained two of the nation’s best food-safety scientists to work with us to assess practices and find additional areas for improvement,” Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said. “We are leaving no stone unturned in terms of finding ways to improve upon our practices.”