A new conspiracy theory is making the social media rounds in the wake of last autumn’s Chipotle Mexacan Grill E coli outbreak: that the outbreak is a deliberate effort to sabotage Chipotle’s recent commitment to GMO-free foods and, more broadly, the chain’s commitment to “better” ingredients. Not to worry, Chipotle fans — it’s far more likely that the outbreak was caused by kitchen ne’er-do-wells than by pro-GMO villains.
Here are the outbreak basics: the CDC traced more than 50 cases of E coli in October and November back to a common source, that source being a meal at Chipotle eaten a week or so before symptoms appeared. The cases occurred in nine states, the majority of which occurred in Washington and Oregon. No one food item at the restaurant has yet been identified as the contaminated culprit (the investigation is ongoing) but the pattern was stark enough for the CDC to issue public statements and to state with some certainty that Chipotle was the origin point for the illnesses.
Pretty straightforward, right? Not to the anti-GMO crowd, who have begun to suspect nefarious agents are at work here. Not surprisingly, two-time Worst Anti-Science Website winner Natural News is leading the charge on this one. In fact, every iteration of this I’ve seen online seems to come directly from a December 23rd article written by Mike Adams. Here’s the full extent of the accusation, straight from the Health Ranger’s keyboard:
After observing recent events involving Chipotle and e.coli, here’s my analysis of the situation: Chipotle’s e.coli outbreaks are not random chance. They are the result of the biotech industry unleashing bioterrorism attacks against the only fast food company that has publicly denounced GMOs.
How do we know? The CDC has already admitted that some of these e.coli outbreaks involve a “rare genetic strain” of e.coli not normally seen in foods. Furthermore, we also know the track record of the biotech industry engaging in the most criminal, dirty, sleazebag tactics imaginable against any person or company that speaks out against GMOs.
The “rare genetic strain” claim Adams refers to can only come, as far as I can tell, from a line in a December 21st update the CDC issued on the Chipotle outbreak (note that Adams’s screed came out two days after this update). Here’s the line:
Additionally, 5 people infected with a different, rare DNA fingerprint of STEC O26 have been identified in Kansas (1), North Dakota (1), and Oklahoma (3) and appear to be linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill.
The part about a “rare DNA fingerprint” is the closest to Adams’ quoted “rare genetic strain” in the CDC releases (Google searches for “rare genetic strain” + Chipotle call up exclusively articles repeating the sabotage theory). “STEC O26” here stands for Shiga-toxin producing Escherichia coli O26, one of more than 70 varieties of STEC, which is itself only one subset of the larger group of E coli, many of which are not harmful to humans.
When most people think about E coli, they are probably thinking of STEC O157, the most common E coli outbreak culprit. O157 lives in the guts of cattle and other ruminants, and it’s not uncommon for it to get into the food supply. It is far from the only STEC ever detected, though; according to the CDC, STEC O157 only causes about 36% of the 265,000 or so annual E coli infections. As STEC O26 is also found in the gut bacteria of cattle, it’s not impossible that it, rather than STEC O157, is the culprit, given that 54% of annual cases involve something other than O157 strains.
Further, that December 21 “rare” remark was made in relation to five cases that were not yet included in the larger outbreak specifically because of the genetic difference. Nowhere can I find a time when the CDC referred to the core outbreak itself as stemming from a “rare genetic strain”. Even on reading comprehension, Adams seems to fail.
So, we know that the “rare genetic strain” claim is worthless. What else does Adams have to offer? Nothing. The rest of the article is just Adams citing prior Natural News articles where Adams has pointed the finger at evil biotech malefactors in the past (one of Adams’ signature talents), and each of those articles is as chock full of nothing as this one is. He lacks any actual evidence that some conspiracy has been inflicted on Chipotle. He pretty much admits this right in the first sentence, where he labels his view an “analysis” of the story. “Analysis” here is pretty much a fancy word for “scaremongering spin”.
So if biotech terrorists aren’t at fault, what happened at Chipotle? It’s far more likely that the culprit here is negligence, plain and simple. For example, chain locations in Washington, one of the centers of the outbreak, have faced a number of recent food safety violations, including “improper food cooking times and temperatures, improper food holding temperatures and inadequate hand washing“. Each of these violations is liable to lead to an E coli outbreak.
Both improper cooking temperatures and improper holding temperatures can encourage contamination. E coli growth can occur in food at temperatures as high as 49ºC (120ºF). The USDA dictates that cooked animal meats be brought to an internal temperature of at least 63ºC (145ºF) or higher and held there for at least 15 seconds, depending on the kind and cut of meat; they also dictate that hot foods be held at a minimum of 57ºC (135ºF) before serving. The food is meant to be cooked and held at a temperature that will not only prevent growth, but also likely kill the bacteria. Some Chipotle locations were apparently failing at one, the other, or both.
Then there’s the hand washing problem. If a raw meat is contaminated with E coli, the cooking process should kill the contamination (if they’re cooked to the proper temperature). But what about the employees who handle the contaminated meat? Imagine someone in the kitchen preps contaminated raw beef for cooking, and then, without proper hand washing, cuts up the lettuce for the side salad. That lettuce is served cold — no heat, no E coli control between the cutting and your plate.
Or it could even be that the lettuce is already contaminated with E coli. It is not uncommon for produce to come into contact with animal feces, and organic produce, being as it is reliant on “natural” fertilizers like cow manure, carries a higher potential risk of fecal matter contamination.
One final thing to note is that this E coli outbreak wasn’t the first contamination problem Chipotle had last year. It wasn’t even the second. It was at least the third such outbreak, following an August norovirus contamination and a August/September salmonella contamination. Also, since the October E coli outbreak, Chipotle has also suffered from another norovirus contamination in Boston. If the five December E coli cases turn out to be from a different source than the October ones, that will make five incidents in the space of five months.
The idea that Chipotle has been sabotaged by Big Biotech is ludicrous. It is far more likely that some combination of problems — poor temperature control, poor sanitation, and contaminated food — caused the Chipotle outbreak than it is that some heinous biotech terrorist dropped an E coli bomb on the chain. Mike Adams is, once again, favoring speculation and scare-mongering over sound science and analysis. It is a tragedy that so many continue to read his site.