Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

CDC Rejects Chipotle's Contention That It Botched E. Coli Crisis

  • In December, company argued that updates from CDC were harmful
  • Agency posted letter responding to burrito chain this week

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dismissed complaints by Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. that the agency mishandled its response to an E. coli crisis last year.

The CDC said in a letter to Chipotle that it had the public’s best interest in mind when it issued a series of updates about the outbreak, which sickened dozens of the burrito chain’s customers. Chipotle had argued in December that the updates were inaccurate, confusing and “unnecessarily intensified the public’s concern” about the health risks associated with the company. It requested a correction.

A lawyer for the company also complained that a CDC official had been quoted saying that tainted meat probably wasn’t the cause of the outbreak because vegetarians were among those who got sick. Chipotle, which called one CDC statement “patently inaccurate,” asked the agency to consider the company’s objections before issuing additional updates.

The CDC formally responded to Chipotle in a letter dated April 15 that was made public on its website this week.

‘Protect and Inform’

“CDC believes that the Web postings served to protect and inform the public as well as inform public health and regulatory partners as the federal, state and local level about this ongoing outbreak investigation,” the agency said in the letter. “The Web postings provided information the public might use to protect themselves by choosing to avoid certain food exposures associated with the outbreak.”

Chipotle doesn’t plan to appeal the CDC’s resolution, said Chris Arnold, a spokesman for the Denver-based company.

Chipotle is still dealing with the fallout of the food-safety crisis, which burst into public view when the CDC announced an investigation into an E. coli outbreak on the West Coast. That led to increased scrutiny on a series of previous foodborne illnesses linked to the burrito chain. Subsequent norovirus outbreaks at restaurants in Massachusetts added to the crisis, sending Chipotle’s sales plunging.

The negative attention has battered a brand that was once known for rapid growth and hefty profit margins. The plummeting sales led to the company’s first quarterly loss as a public company. The crisis also wiped out billions of dollars in market value.

Chipotle has used a marketing push, including a bevy of coupons for free burritos, in an attempt to lure customers back to its restaurants. The chain’s sales have dropped for at least five straight months, but the company has said it can regain its profit margins as it recovers from the crisis.

Reuters previously reported on the CDC’s letter.

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