37 people ill from E. coli outbreak linked to Chipotle, first lawsuit filed

© Lucy Nicholson
The number of people made ill in an E. coli outbreak in the Pacific Northwest has risen from 22 to 37, of which nine in Washington state and three in Oregon were hospitalized. Most had eaten at Chipotle, according to state health officials. No one has died.

Previously, the total number of hospitalized patients stood at eight.

Jonathan Modie, a spokesman for the Oregon Public Health Division, told CNBC that the agency has received at least 100 calls and e-mails from people who had recently eaten at Chipotle in the state and became ill. However, state health officials have only confirmed three cases of diners being sickened by E. coli, so far.

In the meantime, health officials in Washington state and Oregon have been interviewing people confirmed to have contracted E.coli to find out what they had eaten. In addition, their blood is being tested to identify the exact strain of the illness. Officials believe the culprit might be fresh food such as lettuce, tomatoes, cilantro, onions, or possibly even spices.

Washington state epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist told the Associated Press that officials have identified the specific microorganism responsible for the outbreak, which will help in determining the exact source of the illness. Food from the restaurants is also being tested. Lindquist said officials might know by Wednesday what type of food tests positive for the same microorganism.

Authorities have already asked Chipotle to turn over information about its food suppliers. “We’re really relying on working closely with Chipotle,” said Dr. Katrina Hedberg, Oregon’s state epidemiologist.

The E. coli outbreak led the company to temporarily close 43 restaurants until its source has been identified.

Chipotle Mexican Grill Chairman Steve Ells said in a statement on Tuesday that the company immediately closed the restaurants “out of an abundance of caution, even though only eight restaurants have drawn concern.”

Health officials have urged anyone who ate at a Chipotle in the two states between October 14 and 23, and suffered vomiting or bloody diarrhea, to see their healthcare provider.

Meanwhile, the first lawsuit related to the incident has been filed. A woman sued Chipotle in federal court in Washington state on Monday, saying that she was infected with E. coli after eating at one of the chain’s restaurants in Vancouver, Washington on or about October 21.

A few days after her meal, Charmaine Denise Mode of Kelso, Washington felt nauseated, had severe diarrhea, and sought medical treatment at a clinic in Longview, Washington, the lawsuit said. She tested positive for the strain of E. coli linked to the outbreak and is seeking $75,000 in damages, according to Reuters.

A Chipotle representative declined to comment, saying the company does not discuss pending legal action.

Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria normally lives in the intestines of people and animals, but some strains can cause illness and, in some cases, death. It is potentially lethal for children under five and senior citizens. The strain of E. coli found in Washington and Oregon is most commonly associated with contaminated food.

The infection starts when a person swallows tiny amounts of human or animal feces. This often occurs when swimming in a lake, petting an animal, or eating food prepared by people who did not wash their hands after using the restroom.

The infection can cause vomiting, abdominal cramps and bloody diarrhea, so treatment includes hydration. Most cases resolve themselves within seven days.

Chipotle has 1,931 locations, each of which brings in about $2.5 million in revenue per year on average, as reported by Reuters.