-- Minnesota health officials are investigating a salmonella outbreak that has sickened at least 45 and that they believe is connected to Chipotle restaurants in the state.
Currently, 45 people have been reported sickened in the outbreak and officials are still unsure what the exact source of the contamination was. People sickened ranged in age from 15 to 67 years old, and five were hospitalized, according to the Minnesota Department of Health, which noted that all those infected are recovering.
This outbreak is not related to an ongoing salmonella outbreak linked to cucumbers, health officials said, noting that the two outbreaks were caused by different strains of the disease.
Of the 34 sickened individuals who have been interviewed, 32 ate or likely ate at one of 17 different Chipotle restaurant locations in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
The good news for Chipotle fans is that health officials said they believe there are no longer any transmissions from the restaurants.
"Chipotle has been extremely proactive in collaborating with investigators to quickly control the outbreak and identify its source," Dana Eikmeier, epidemiologist for the Food-borne Diseases Unit of the Minnesota Department of Health, said in a statement.
Chris Arnold, communications director for Chipotle, said in a statement today that "The safety and well being of our customers is always our highest priority."
"Since being contacted by the Minnesota Department of Health regarding a possible connection to this issue, we have offered our full cooperation to assist in their investigation, and replaced our entire supply of the suspect ingredient in Minnesota to ensure that it continues to be safe to eat in our restaurants," Arnold added. "While this issue in Minnesota does not present an ongoing risk to consumers, we are committed to working with health department officials while they look to determine a cause."
There is no indication that the outbreak has spread beyond state lines, a spokesman for the health department said, but information about the outbreak has been entered into a nationwide monitoring system in case other cases appear.
"This is an unusually large number of people who have reported [being infected] in such a space of time," said Doug Schultz, spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Health, noting that the supervisor of the agency's food-borne illness unit described it as "one of the largest he's seen in 20 years."
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert from Vanderbilt University Medical School, said investigators will likely be looking at whether ingredients arriving at the restaurants were already contaminated or if the food was contaminated while at the restaurant.
If ingredients arrive at the restaurant already contaminated and "if it is served uncooked in a salad, for example, there's no way an individual restaurant can determine whether food is contaminated or not," Schaffner noted.
There are approximately 700 cases of salmonella in Minnesota every year, according to the health department. The disease causes diarrhea, abdominal pain and fever and in severe cases it can infect the blood or cause meningitis. Those with compromised immune system are most at risk for severe complications.