An official chronology of the Simi Valley, CA, norovirus outbreak involving Chipotle Mexican Grill customers and employees, which has been obtained by Food Safety News, shows that there were far more victims than were reported at the time.
The report reveals that the Simi Valley outbreak was larger than any of the other four outbreaks Chipotle has suffered since July, including the ongoing norovirus outbreak mostly involving Boston College students, the two E. coli outbreaks, and the Salmonella Newport outbreak in Minnesota in August. Together, these events have sickened more than 490 people.
The Simi Valley chronology was prepared by the Environmental Health Division of Ventura County’s Resource Management Agency. The first report of illness at the Chipotle Mexican Grill at 1263 Simi Town Center Way came to the agency’s executive officer by email at 9:36 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015. A man said that his daughter, one of 16 students, had dined at that Chipotle restaurant and was ill. And, the students were all sick, and one was in the hospital.
The county’s chronology includes detailed tracking of the complaints as they came in and as the illnesses were confirmed as norovirus. From that first report through Sept. 25, 2015, the chronology comes to this conclusion: ”the total number of reportedly ill customers and employees at this Chipotle outbreak investigation is 234.”
However, the number of victims being reported in other media outlets as recently as this week was just 98.
The internal document also states that the real number of victims of Chipotle’s Simi Valley outbreak could be higher still. “In reviewing the food logs provided by Chipotle for both 8/18/15 and 8/19/15, it is estimated at least 1500+ entrees were sold each day,” it reads.
Sandy Murray, who did the analysis for the division, wrote: “Thus, the actual number of customers and employees ill from this outbreak is likely to be substantially higher than the reported number of 234.”
It was not until late afternoon on Friday, Aug. 21, 2015, that the executive office forwarded to Ventura County’s Environmental Health Division the email from the man reporting the 16 ill students. The second complaint did not come in until Saturday, but a CBS affiliate was already reporting there was an outbreak.
On that same Saturday, Aug. 22, the division heard from Chipotle’s corporate offices that 17 employees in Simi Valley were ill and that the company was sending in replacements for everyone working at the Simi Town Center location.
The unit was inspected on Monday, Aug. 24, 2015, and the results were not pretty. Violations were for failures in pest control, sanitation, and maintenance. Also, employees were working without valid food handler cards as required by California law.
Restrooms were both unclean and not in good repair. The toilet base inside the front stall of the women’s lavatory was not secured to the floor. The facility was lacking in other maintenance. Tiles were missing, there were gaps in and around a self-serve soda fountain, and mildew on the deflector panel inside the ice machine and on the back splash wall of the washing sink.
There was also grease and food debris in the lower compartment of the deep fryer.
A follow-up inspection came three days later, on Aug. 27, 2015. At that inspection, the division also dropped off containers for Chipotle to use in submitting food samples for testing. They were picked up the next day.
Chipotle had managed to correct six of the seven violations it received in the first inspection. It was ordered to immediately discontinue holding potentially hazardous foods at unapproved temperatures.
“A container of cooked beef was observed holding at 118 F at the steam table at the front service counter,” the inspection report states. “The operator voluntarily disposed of the food item.”
At the second inspection, the Chipotle manager said that a “more stringent” hand-washing policy was being imposed.
In the final inspection associated with the outbreak, which occurred on Sept. 17, 2015, the Simi Valley Chipotle agreed not to allow employees to store personal items, such as cell phones, in food preparation areas.
The Environmental Health Division’s second contact with Chipotle corporate officials came on Monday, Aug. 24, 2015, when the county was told that, in addition to the 17 employees who were sickened, the burrito maker also had a list of 74 customers who had contacted the company about their illnesses.
Environmental health staffers and the Ventura County Public Health nurse began attempting to contact both the employees and the customers who reported being ill. At that point, they did not yet have confirmation “as to why etiologic agents might be the cause of the outbreak.”
Ventura County made the outbreak its top public health priority in a conference call on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015, splitting up tasks, such as calling the victims and getting food and stool samples tested. Ventura County Public Health made it official on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015, that its lab had five positive results for norovirus.
As a result, the county began using “exclusion notices” to prevent some employees from reporting for work until cleared. One Chipotle employee also worked at the Panda Express in Simi Valley and was excluded from working there as well. All were clear to return to work by Sept. 25, 2015.
Only two of the outbreak victims were sickened by a secondary infection from a family member who was in turn a Chipotle customer.
On Wednesday of this week, Chipotle ran print advertisements in 60 newspaper markets with an apology from Steve Ells, the burrito chain’s founder and co-chief executive. However, his apology only went to the victims of the current nine-state E. coli 026 outbreak and the Boston College norovirus outbreak.
“From the beginning, all of our food safety programs have met or exceeded industry standards,” Ells said. “But recent incidents, an E. coli outbreak that sickened 52 people and a norovirus outbreak that sickened approximately 140 people at a single Chipotle restaurant in Boston, have shown us that we need to do better, much better.”
No mention was made of the other foodborne outbreaks.
The publicly traded Chipotle also had one of its better days since its troubles began. CMG stock was up 2.49 percent, or $13.79 per share, closing at $568.65 per share.
Here are the public records of the California norovirus outbreak:
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