Sound Stories. Sound Voices.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
You are on the KUOW archive site. Click here to go to our current site.

Hunt Is On For Cause Of Washington E. Coli Outbreak

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of Escherichia coli, grown in culture and adhered to a cover slip.
Flickr Photo/NIAID (CC BY 2.0)/
Colorized scanning electron micrograph of Escherichia coli, grown in culture and adhered to a cover slip.

The sleuthing is under way to figure out what has sickened at least 22 people in an E. coli outbreak linked to Chipotle restaurants.

Health officials said Monday that they’re still unsure which food is responsible, but the number of cases is expected to rise beyond the 19 in Washington and three in Oregon reported so far. Seven people have been hospitalized in Washington, one in Oregon.

The Chipotle Mexican Restaurant chain said cases have been linked to eight of its restaurants in the Seattle and Portland areas, but that it has closed all 43 restaurants in the two states “out of an abundance of caution.”

State officials urged anyone who thought they might have become ill after eating at Chipotle in the past few weeks to consult a doctor.

There have been other E. coli outbreaks in Washington state this year, including one linked to a food truck that served farmers markets in King and Snohomish counties and one in Lynden at the Milk Makers Fest.

State epidemiologist Scott Lindquist said this event is a good example of how to tackle an outbreak. He said Chipotle is “being really forthright about this exposure."

Seattle-based attorney Bill Marler agrees. He has more than two decades of experience in food-borne illness cases, including two ongoing lawsuits against Chipotle in California and Minnesota. He was an attorney for the family of the girl who died in the 1993 outbreak linked to a Jack In The Box restaurant.

“I think what they've done by shuttering all of these restaurants is a good thing,” Marler told KUOW’s Ross Reynolds. “And it clearly indicates that they know that it's likely that a particular product went to a lot of different restaurants in Washington and Oregon.”

Marler said health officials are looking for the common denominator in these cases.

“Is it the lettuce? Is it the cilantro?” he said. “They’re trying to find what that is so they can trace it back upstream and figure out why this outbreak happened.”

He’s betting the culprit is a leafy green from a supplier. “I think it'd be unusual to have eight restaurants undercooking meat in the same timeframe,” he said.

On its website, Chipotle stresses the importance of locally grown food and reduced reliance on pesticides and antibiotics.

“They have to rethink are they doing enough to make sure that not only is their food organic and local and not GMO, but it is safe for people to consume,” Marler said.