Everything You Need to Know About the Latest Foodborne Illness Outbreak at Chipotle

If you've been keeping up with the news in recent weeks, you've probably crossed Chipotle off your list of grab-and-go dinner spots.

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If you've been keeping up with the news in recent weeks, you've probably crossed Chipotle Mexican Grill off your list of grab-and-go dinner spots.

The popular chain, which was also the probable source of a recent E. coli outbreak that affected nine states, is now embattled in yet another food safety scare: more than 140 people in Boston have fallen ill with norovirus after eating at a local Chipotle.

"It's a really tough time; I'm sorry for the people who got sick," Chipotle CEO Steve Ells said on the Today show last Thursday morning. "They're having a tough time. I feel terrible about that. We're doing a lot to rectify this."

Norovirus is a pathogen that causes gastroenteritis, or inflammation of the stomach or intestines (a.k.a. food poisoning or stomach flu, although it isn't an actual "flu" at all). Here's the deal on the current outbreak, including what you should know about the illness in general.

Norovirus is contracted person to person, through contaminated water and food, and via contact with contaminated surfaces. Recent research in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases also suggests it can spread through the air and infect people a few feet away. The virus can withstand many common disinfectants, as well as survive at very hot temperatures as high as 140 degrees.

The facts about the current outbreak

The Chipotle at the source of the outbreak, which is located near Boston College has been temporarily shut down, but the virus is still expected to infect more people. Why? Even after an individual recovers, they can still spread the infection for two weeks or longer.

This is why Ben Kruskal, MD, chief of infectious disease at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, told the Boston Herald he wouldn't be surprised if the number of infected folks climbed: "It is totally possible that it could spread," he said.

It can happen anywhere

While you may feel inclined to steer clear of all burrito bowls for the time being, you should know that norovirus outbreaks can happen any time, anywhere, to anyone. In fact, it's the most common cause of foodborne-disease outbreaks in the U.S., causing roughly 20 million illnesses in the country every year.

A lot of the time, an outbreak is caused by a sick employee coming to work and touching foods, like raw fruits and vegetables, with their bare hands before serving them. In fact, according to a city food inspection report, someone at the Boston location worked while sick on Dec. 3. (The report also cited the chain for keeping meat at temperatures around 125 degrees, rather than the required 140 or above.)

While sit-down restaurants are hot beds for the bug (they've accounted for more than 60% of outbreaks in recent years), norovirus can quickly spread just about anywhere. Nicknamed the "cruise ship virus," the bug spreads easily in closed, populated places, including schools, day care centers, and nursing homes.

Norovirus symptoms normally subside within three days

Symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain and fever—roughly 12 to 48 hours after exposure to the virus. The virus usually clears up in a few days, and drinking plenty of liquids and eating a bland, low-fiber diet full of bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast may help with symptoms.

It's not as worrisome as an E. coli outbreak

Though it's certainly not fun, the good news is norovirus is not as serious as other types of food poisoning, like E. coli.

Back in October, health officials linked an outbreak of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) in Washington and Oregon back to Chipotle restaurants. The outbreak eventually spread to a total of nine states, with 52 people reportedly getting sick, and 20 requiring hospitalization.

These particular strains of E. coli can cause severe anemia or kidney failure, or life-threatening dehydration. In fact, 61 Americans die each year from these infections, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

To compare, between 2009 and 2012, there were only two deaths related to food-related norovirus outbreaks, per the latest CDC report.

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