RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
For the restaurant chain Chipotle, the bad news just keeps coming. The company said yesterday that sales have plunged following several outbreaks of foodborne illness. And now, as NPR's Jim Zarroli, reports, Chipotle says U.S. officials have a criminal investigation going into an outbreak of norovirus at one of its California restaurants.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: The outbreak occurred last August at a Chipotle restaurant in Simi Valley, Calif. Ventura County health officials say by the time it ended, 189 people who had visited the restaurant had become sick, and so had 18 employees. Bill Marler is a Seattle attorney who has sued the chain on behalf of some of its customers.
BILL MARLER: All of the people who had been sickened that I'm representing are somewhat typical norovirus cases. They ate at the restaurant, and they were sick within 24 to 48 hours.
ZARROLI: The victims had several days of nausea and vomiting, and a few went to the hospital for dehydration, but no one died. The outbreak seemed like a fairly standard case of norovirus, which sickens millions of Americans each year. Then this week, the company revealed that it had received a federal grand jury subpoena in connection with a criminal investigation. It's not clear why U.S. officials are looking into the outbreak, which typically would be handled by the state. Bill Marler says it appears to have something to do with the way store management communicated news of the outbreak to corporate officials in Colorado. What is beyond doubt is that the subpoena has ratcheted up Chipotle's already sizable legal problems. Again, Bill Marler...
MARLER: I have never seen a one-restaurant chain have six foodborne illness outbreaks over six months in 20 years of doing this. It's either incredibly bad luck, or it's a systemic food safety problem.
ZARROLI: Since last summer, hundreds of Chipotle customers have been sickened by salmonella, norovirus and two separate outbreaks of E. coli. The company has closed stores, apologized and promised to overhaul its food safety programs. The federal investigation makes the challenges facing the company even more acute. Eden Gillott Bowe runs a public relations firm specializing in crisis management.
EDEN GILLOTT BOWE: The best thing that they can do is really reassure their customers, you know, that they're doing everything in their power and being as transparent as possible. I know that when they're being investigated, there's only so many things that they can say, so their hands are kind of tied.
ZARROLI: For its part, Chipotle declined an interview request, saying it doesn't comment on ongoing legal matters. It did say it will fully cooperate with the investigation. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.
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