'Nightmare scenario': A food safety expert explains why Chipotle can't seem to escape food poisoning scandals



Chipotle said Tuesday it had closed a restaurant in Sterling, Virginia, after multiple customers said they had gotten sick from eating there.

The news sent Chipotle's stock tumbling and made many wonder whether it's safe to eat at the chain that was rocked by multiple outbreaks of foodborne illnesses in 2015.

However, a food poisoning expert told Business Insider the chain isn't necessarily doing anything wrong.

According to food safety advocate and attorney Bill Marler, the reason food poisoning scandals continue to haunt Chipotle is more rooted in psychology than food safety.

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Chipotle restaurants through the years
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Chipotle restaurants through the years
DENVER, CO - FEBRUARY 9: Steve Ells, 32, owner of the Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant chain, in front of one of his stores at 32nd & Lowell Blvd. in Denver, Colorado on Monday, Feb. 9, 1998. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Exterior of the Chipotle restaurant on Wisconsin Ave. NW Washington, D.C. (Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
GLENVIEW, IL - DECEMBER 02: Activity is seen near the order-counter area inside a Chipotle restaurant December 2, 2005 in Glenview, Illinois. McDonald's Corp., owners of 92 percent of Chipotle, are preparing its Mexican-style eateries for an initial public offering. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)
CHICAGO - JANUARY 26: The Chipoltle Mexican Grill logo is painted on the door of one of the Chain's restaurants in the trendy Bucktown neighborhood January 26, 2006 in Chicago, Illinois. McDonald's spin-off of the restaurant chain ended the day with the Initial Public Offering (IPO) closing at $44, double its opening price. It was the best opening day gain by a U.S.-based IPO in more than five years. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 26: Workers prepares meals at Chipotle Mexican Grill in West Bloomfield, Michigan on Thursday, January 26, 2006. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.'s shares more than doubled on the first day of trading after McDonald's Corp. took the fast-growing chain public. (Photo by Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - JANUARY 26: The original Chipotle restaurant at 1644 E. Evans Ave in Denver, shown here on Jauary 26, 2006. (Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
A Chipotle burrito in it's signature aluminum wrap on Friday, February 12, 2010. Burrito was that the original location on E. Evans Ave. Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post (Photo By Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Chipotle burritos at the original location on E. Evans Ave. Bryan Sawyer who eats about 3 times a week at the Chipotle eats a steak black bean burrito on Friday, February 12, 2010. Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post (Photo By Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: -- Kyle Braley stirs a tomatillo green chili salsa at Chipotle Mexican Grill in South Portland on Monday, December 13, 2010. The popular restaurant chain, which serves naturally-raised beef, chicken and pork, has its grand opening today. (Photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
A pedestrian walks into a Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. location in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012. Chipotle, the best- performing restaurant stock in the Standard & Poor's 500 Index last year, is expected to release earnings data on Oct. 18. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. logo is displayed on a paper bag at a location in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012. Chipotle, the best- performing restaurant stock in the Standard & Poor's 500 Index last year, is expected to release earnings data on Oct. 18. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. employees prepare food at a location in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012. Chipotle, the best- performing restaurant stock in the Standard & Poor's 500 Index last year, is expected to release earnings data on Oct. 18. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A steak burrito is arranged for a photograph with a drink and bags of chips at a Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. restaurant in Hollywood, California, U.S., on Tuesday, July 16, 2013. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. is scheduled to release earnings data on July 18. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A employee sprinkles cheese on a burrito at a Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. restaurant in Hollywood, California, U.S., on Tuesday, July 16, 2013. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. is scheduled to release earnings data on July 18. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Employees prepare lunch orders at a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant at Madison Square Park in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. is expected to release earnings figures on Jan. 30. Photographer: Craig Warga/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Employees prepare lunch orders at a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant at Madison Square Park in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. is expected to release earnings figures on Jan. 30. Photographer: Craig Warga/Bloomberg via Getty Images
MIAMI, FL - MARCH 05: A Chipotle restaurant is seen on March 5, 2014 in Miami, Florida. The Mexican fast food chain is reported to have tossed around the idea that it would temporarily suspend sales of guacamole due to an increase in food costs. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A Chipotle eatery in the Financial District of Manhattan NYC viewed from the outside looking in shows the interior design as well as people eating & talking, & also reflects the urban building from across the street in the upper left corner of the window
NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2015/10/18: Restaurants in USA: Chipotle Mexican Grill Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. is a chain of restaurants in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and France, specializing in Mission burritos and tacos. (Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK -- FEBRUARY 8: A sign sits in the window of a Chipotle restaurant on Broadway in Lower Manhattan telling customers the restaurant is closed until 3 p.m. on February 8, 2016 in New York City. The Mexican food chain is closing stores for lunch nationwide for a meeting on food safety following a number of E. coli outbreaks. (Photo by Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)
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"I think that a lot of it just has to do with the fact that people are very acutely aware of what happened at Chipotle in 2015," Marler told Business Insider. "To have a norovirus outbreak, E. coli outbreak, salmonella outbreak within months of each other is unprecedented. So, I think that, along with media and social media, heightened people's attention."

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According to Chipotle's executive director of food safety, the symptoms reported by the customers who got sick are "consistent with norovirus," which spreads quickly and causes vomiting and diarrhea.

Norovirus cases, Marler says, are a "nightmare scenario" and are responsible for 32 million of the 38 million foodborne illnesses in the US every year.

"There are a lot of outbreaks that happen that never get any press coverage," Marler said. That's because they are also incredibly difficult to track to a specific source.

Because Chipotle's 2015 E. coli scandal was so heavily publicized, people continue to associate the chain with food poisoning, despite its major efforts to improve food safety. So, when someone gets sick after eating Chipotle, they're more likely to blame the burrito they had for dinner than the raw oyster they had at happy hour, even though the oyster is actually is more likely to carry foodborne illnesses.

"The vast majority of foodborne illnesses are never linked to anything," Marler said. "Most people think the thing that made them sick was the last thing they ate — which is mostly wrong."

In Marler's words, Chipotle can't catch a break.

"Those poor bastards," he remarked.

According to Marler, there is a good chance that the Chipotle in Sterling, Virginia, was contaminated by a customer who was infected by the norovirus, which then spread through the restaurant. If that's the case, there isn't much that Chipotle could have done to prevent the outbreak.

There's also not much you need to worry about if you're craving Chipotle for dinner, since it's unlikely the virus will spread to other locations. And, if the outbreak is linked to norovirus, it's unlikely to impact other locations.

"It's unfortunate for these people who got sick, but, it's unfortunate [for Chipotle] too," Marler said.

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SEE ALSO: Chipotle shuts down restaurant after customers get severely ill

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