ATLANTA - Piling bad news on top of bad news, Chipotle Mexican Grill is now the target of a federal criminal investigation into its handling of an norovirus outbreak at a central California restaurant. This is just one of four outbreaks involving the 1,900-restaurant chain since August of 2015.
But in Atlanta, where there are no confirmed cases, the loyal remain loyal.
"I've been to Chipotle since having heard about it (the outbreaks), and it hasn't really changed how often I've gone,” said customer Henry Chappell.
Federal investigators have asked Chipotle to turn over a series of documents related to how the company handled an August outbreak at its Simi Valley, California restaurant, in which dozens of customers and employees were sickened.
It’s not clear what possible criminal charges the chain could face.
Chipotle also had to close and deep clean a Boston restaurant after more than 150 college students got sick from norovirus, which makes about 20 million Americans sick every year.
Dr. Nelson Yuen, Regional Medical Director of Piedmont Urgent Care by WellStreet, said norovirus typically isn't serious, lasting just 2-3 days. But, it can cause watery diarrhea and vomiting that can make sufferers very uncomfortable.
"Oftentimes they are pretty miserable,” Dr. Yuen said. “And, oftentimes, what helps are some anti-nausea medicines and a liter of IV fluid, that makes a big difference for some people."
Much more serious, Yuen said, is E.coli, another germ now tied to the food served at Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating two separate outbreaks of the severe bacterial illness than sickened more than 50 people across nine states. Both involve a subtype of E.coli that produces the deadly Shiga toxin.
"This one is dangerous because it can cause something called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which is a very serious illness that can shut down your kidneys,” said Dr. Yuen. “It can kill you."
The CDC said the Chipotle E.coli investigations are ongoing. But, it's notoriously difficult to trace back the source of the bacteria in outbreaks like these. So the CDC said it still doesn't know, and may never know, exactly what made people sick.
Chipotle said the company has stepped up its food safety procedures and is fully cooperating with the federal investigation.
Dr. Yuen said if you get sick from something you eat, there are three warning signs you need to seek medical care: bloody diarrhea, fever and severe abdominal pain.
“Those are red flags,” Dr. Yuen said. “If you have any of those symptoms, you definitely need to get checked by a doctor, urgent care, the ER, somewhere."