Some Chipotle customers say undeterred by E. coli outbreak

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Diners at Chipotle Mexican Grill locations on Saturday said freshness and convenience outweighed concerns about contamination following the news that food poisoning cases had erupted at the chain’s locations in six U.S. states.

Customers enter a Chipotle restaurant in Seattle, Washington November 20, 2015. REUTERS/David Ryder

Shares of the fast-casual chain tumbled 12.3 percent to an 18-month low on Friday on word that the E. coli outbreak, originally limited to Chipotle locations in Washington state and Oregon, had spread to four additional states: California, Ohio, New York and Minnesota.

At least 45 people have been infected with the E. coli O26 strain. Of those, 43 reported eating at a Chipotle restaurant in the week before their illness started, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which said a common meal item or ingredient served at Chipotle was likely the source of the outbreak.

But diners at a handful of Chipotle locations said they were undeterred by the reports.

“I’m not going to get flipped out by all the horrible things that could happen. I think Chipotle is cutting-edge,” said Marguerite Regan, 50, in Wichita, Kansas.

She was considering taking her 8-year-old son to the restaurant, which she likes because of its vegan options.

Brandon Doby, a 19-year-old Colgate University student who picked up food at a Chipotle in Syracuse, New York, said: “I’m aware of the E. coli breakout, but I’ve got bigger things to worry about than E. coli.”

Alex Boucounis, 17, who also ate at the Syracuse restaurant on Saturday, said he was concerned and planned to research exactly which stores had been hit. He said he had not realized that New York was affected.

“It tastes good. It goes down good, and it’s a lot cheaper than bar food, and it’s a lot better for you too,” he said.

No deaths have been reported, but the food poisoning has led to 16 hospitalizations, the CDC reported on Friday.

“I can’t live my life worried about some minute possibility something might kill me,” said Stan Yao, 29, a Harvard Law School student.

“It’s fast and fresh and tastes better than most fast-food options. I don’t even know what E. coli is,” said Yao, who chose to eat at Chipotle in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Saturday because he did not want to cook.

In a statement on Friday, Chipotle said it had expanded testing of key ingredients and examined food-safety procedures in its restaurants in the wake of the outbreak.

The outbreak in part reflects changing tastes of U.S. diners, who are increasingly demanding fresher, less processed foods. While such products are often healthier, some types of processing can kill pathogens that make people sick.

“In practice, as someone in food safety and someone who focuses on that and as a concerned customer, I’d want to know what the specifics of that are,” said Ben Chapman, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University who studies food safety.

Chapman said it is hard to predict how customers will respond to incidents of food poisoning connected to a strong brand, adding, “the more incidents that someone is linked to, that can erode that trust.”

Additional reporting by Matthew Liptak in Syracuse, New York, Valerie Vande Panne in Cambridge, Massachusets, and Alice Mannette in Wichita, Kansas; Editing by Scott Malone and Matthew Lewis