DENVER: Chipotle Mexican Grill is blaming norovirus – not E. coli, as falsely reported by various media outlets – for an illness that has affected the Boston College men’s basketball team after eating at one of the chain’s local restaurants over the weekend.
Media outlets such as the Washington Post reported on Tuesday morning that one of the basketball team’s coaches told BC Interruption that eight of the team’s players have E. coli, and the school’s senior director of sports medicine even warned the Boston College athletes to avoid a local Chipotle restaurant because of the E. coli risk.
However, the health department said in a statement to NBC News "initial testing conducted by the State Public Health has shown the presence of norovirus," rather than E. coli.
The number of students sickened by norovirus after eating at Chipotle has since risen to 80, according to media reports.
"Boston does not appear to be related to [Chipotle’s E. coli crisis] in any way, but rather it looks like a norovirus incident isolated to a single restaurant," Chipotle communications director Chris Arnold told PRWeek via email. "It is important to note that noroviruses are very easily transmitted, in part because they can spread in many ways — through person-to-person contact, on surface areas, or through food and drink."
He added that the CDC estimates that there are 20 million cases of norovirus annually, making it the leading cause of gastroenteritis in the US.
Boston College issued a statement on Monday night confirming that several BC students and student-athletes, including members of the BC men's basketball team, have reported to BC Health Services complaining of gastrointestinal symptoms. The common factor among the students is that they had all eaten at the Chipotle restaurant in Cleveland Circle, the statement said.
"The team will practice today and there has never been any discussion of postponing or canceling a game," Chris Cameron, a spokesman for Boston College's athletics department, told PRWeek.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has been notified, BC said, and is working to determine if there is a link to the ongoing national outbreak of E. coli. The Food and Drug Administration has also issued information regarding this outbreak on the FDA website.
Shares of Chipotle were down 6% in after-hours trading on Monday night after the Boston College illnesses were reported. The company is also reportedly expecting a decline of between 8% and 11%, and analysts told Business Insider that they expect same-store sales to continue declining through at least June 2016.
To communicate to investors about the crisis, Chipotle is taking advantage of its pre-planned appearance at the 2nd Annual Bernstein Consumer Summit in New York City – an investor conference.
"Our officers are speaking today and they also spoke yesterday at the Bernstein conference in New York, both in presentation and in one-on-one meetings with key investors," Arnold said. "Through that, they are outlining the impacts of this incident, sharing details of our heightened food safety plan, and answering investors’ questions."
Since closing and then re-opening 43 restaurants in Washington State and Oregon due to an E. coli outbreak last month, Chipotle has been informed by the CDC that six additional E. coli cases have been reported in California, Illinois, Maryland, Ohio, and Washington. Although one of the individuals from these newly identified cases has no known link to Chipotle, five individuals did report eating at Chipotle. An additional illness was identified in Pennsylvania, but the case is not connected with a Chipotle visit.
This is the most recent update from the chain, which was posted on its Food Safety Update page on December 5. On Friday, the chain also issued a release highlighting an enhanced food safety plan it is currently implementing.
There has been radio silence on Chipotle’s Facebook and Twitter pages since Friday – rare for a brand that typically posts on social media several times a day.
Arnold explained that Chipotle’s social media team is actively engaged in conversation with customers. He added that engagement has always been the chain’s "highest priority" with social media.
"On the heels of this incident, it is our aim to establish Chipotle as the industry leader in food safety," Arnold said of the main message the chain is trying to get out there.
Deb Hileman, president and CEO, Institute for Crisis Management, told PRWeek that while Chipotle has been communicating the right kinds of information, they have not made that information very easy to find, making their efforts "much less effective."
"I would suggest that they use social to direct people to [the Food Safety Update page]," she said. "There is a lot of good information on this page, but no way to find it on their website unless you know it is there."
She added that Chipotle’s press releases on the incident are also harder to find than they should be.
"The press section of the website is buried under the investor relations section, which has only a text link in the footer of the home page," Hileman said. "And nothing at all under the Q&A section of the site."
Chipotle continues to work with Edelman, said Arnold, adding that another PR firm is serving as Chipotle’s primary advisor on crises and critical issues. He did not disclose the name of the other firm.