CINCINNATI — Megan O’Keefe said she wasn’t going to take a chance.
After the Cincinnati resident heard about the E. coli outbreak at Chipotle restaurants around the county, she decided to stay away.
“I just didn’t want to get sick,” she said.
The popular restaurant chain’s reputation and wallet took a hit after more than 60 people were sickened at Chipotle restaurants in 14 states, first by an E. coli outbreak in late October, and then by a norovirus in December. In January, sales plunged 36 percent at stores open at least 13 months.
Chipotle-related E. coli illnesses have not been reported in the Tri-State, but a handful of local customers complained of food poisoning last year, according to county public health records reviewed by WCPO’s I-Team.
Records show inspectors were called to the Chipotle on Glen Este-Withamsville Road in Eastgate three times after three different customers complained of food poisoning. Two of those customers required medical attention, according to the reports.
A follow-up inspection found one “employee…handl(ed) leaf lettuce with bare hands.”
Despite customer complaints and some infractions, Clermont County Public Health officials could not find any evidence that the restaurant had caused the customers’ illnesses.
The same thing happened in May 2015, when someone complained of an illness after eating at the Chipotle at 350 Forest Fair Drive in Fairfield. According to health department records, inspectors could not determine the restaurant had made anyone sick.
As it turns out, health inspectors can rarely make that connection.
“In the cases that we see, it’s very hard to do,” said Jeremy Hessel, director of environmental health for the Hamilton County Health Department.
Wessel has been inspecting restaurants for 15 years. He said Hamilton County receives between 50 to 100 complaints of food poisoning every year. But Hessel estimated less than 5 percent of those cases are ever tied back to a single restaurant.
“If you don’t get the complaint early, it’s almost impossible to get a food sample that’s representative of a particular case,” he said.
Public health reports from more than 30 Chipotle restaurants in the region found 22 critical violations for things like food being kept under temperature and employees not properly washing their hands. A majority of the Tri-State’s Chipotle locations received positive reviews.
An inspector’s review at the Chipotle at 2364 Kings Center Court in Mason stated: “The facility is very clean and well maintained. Great Job.”
Chipotle officials said they have revamped a lot of their policies in the wake of the E. coli reports, including how they DNA test their ingredients. They’re also offering paid sick leave so that employees don’t feel compelled to come in when they’re sick.
The chain opened four hours later than usual Monday so workers could gather in movie theaters and hotel conference rooms across the country to discuss the chain's food safety policies. Members of the media were not allowed to observe the discussions. The chain later announced it will give away free burritos to customers who may have missed their lunch during Monday's closures.
The CDC announced last week that Chipotle’s E. coli-related issues appear to be over.
Use the interactive map below to see how your go-to Chipotle restaurant did with health inspectors.
(Look at the box below this map for code violation number explanations.)
View How safe is your neighborhood Chipotle? in a full screen map