Chipotle announced it will be closing up shop nationwide for a few hours as part of its attempt to halt its ongoing E. Coli outbreak. But why hasn’t the company been able to stop the outbreak, or even find the source yet? The answer isn’t in the restaurant chain—it’s in the bacteria.

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To understand the problem, ask yourself a simple question: What’s everything you’ve eaten in the last four days? If you find that difficult to answer at the spur of the moment, you’ve basically sussed out the problem of E. coli tracking.

Some bacteria get people sick within hours, and in those cases it’s fairly simple to find and test a source. E. coli, however, usually takes from three to 10 days to hit. By the time a common food among all the people who are ill has been traced to a particular kitchen, whatever ingredient that was getting people sick is most likely gone, making simple testing an impossibility.


Top image: Chipotle salad / Michael Saechang; Chart: E. Coli timeline / CDC

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Which means that when tracking E. coli, you’re almost always weeks behind the curve—and once someone has gotten sick, there’s even more time devoted to confirming that it’s really E. coli and that every illness is part of the same outbreak. Combined, each case takes almost up to three weeks to confirm.

Food security theater

Tracing E. coli is essentially detective work, and like most detective work, the majority of it is neither glamorous nor showy. Instead, the details are gleaned by combing through statistics, medical records, and lab reports. The behind-the-scenes nature of the actual investigation—combined with the very public nature of the outbreaks themselves—can lead to what’s essentially food security theater. In other words, measures are taken more to show action than to actually trace and end the outbreak.

Chipotle isn’t the only chain food supplier to have a major outbreak of food-poisoning. What sets the company apart is that it’s a growing and (until fairly recently) mostly lauded fast food chain. All of Chipotle’s marketing has been based on the idea that it’s fast food is somehow higher in quality than the average.

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These outbreaks, and Chipotle’s inability to trace the source, strikes at the very core of that. So what of the company’s announcement that they’re closing up nationwide for a few hours of food safety training? Can that be expected to solve the chain’s E. coli problem? Although widespread food safety training is a good idea, if the source is an ingredient that remains contaminated, it probably won’t solve the problem.

How does an E. coli outbreak actually end? The most foolproof method is to figure out which ingredient caused it in the first place. So far, though, the CDC says there’s been no luck in identifying the source. The agency is currently investigating possible new cases across nine states, which may have occurred as recently as December 18th.

Follow the author at @misra.