Chipotle incident shines light on takeout food safety

If this week's closing of a Chipotle restaurant in Virginia makes you feel a bit squeamish about eating takeout, there are a few rules of thumb you can follow to help reduce your odds of foodborne illness, health experts say.

Chipotle said it shuttered a store in Sterling, Virginia, Monday after a number of customers reported stomach illness, including symptoms like nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. 

The Loudon County Health Department said one case of norovirus has been confirmed and about 60 people who ate at the Chipotle have reported illness. Health officials are still awaiting further test results, according to David Goodfriend, director of the health department.

Chipotle has been working to bounce back from a series of health scares, including a multi-state E. coli outbreak in the fall of 2015 that prompted the temporary shutdown of dozens of Chipotle restaurants. There was also an unrelated norovirus outbreak in Boston that year where more than 100 customers, including dozens of Boston College students, got sick with the gastrointestinal illness. 

The company instituted new food handling policies nationwide to try to prevent a recurrence. But the chain had more bad publicity this week after mice fell from the ceiling in a Dallas location.

If you're concerned about foodborne illness, you don't need to stop eating out, said Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency room physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. But he recommends following some common-sense practices.

"I see patients on almost a daily basis with foodborne illness. It's quite a common occurrence," Glatter told CBS News. 

The culprit is usually an infected employee who hasn't washed their hands and then goes on to prepare food, he said. 

To reduce your odds of getting sick:

  • Make sure your food passes the smell test. "If in doubt, throw it out. It's not worth days of misery and vomiting or diarrhea," Glatter said. 
  • Don't leave takeout food on the counter then eat it later. Germs can grow in foods within 2 hours if they're not refrigerated below 40°F.
  • Make sure the restaurant or food truck you're eating at is up to code. Different areas have different rules. If you're not sure, ask the restaurant to confirm.
  • It's a red flag if your food preparer is not wearing gloves, said Dr. Sunil Sood, an infectious disease expert at Northwell Health, and professor of pediatrics at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine, in New York. "It just takes one worker who can spread it [infection] to many," he told CBS News.
  • Think twice before ordering a sandwich piled with raw sprouts, warn food safety experts. Sprouts — including alfalfa, mung bean, clover and radish sprouts — can be contaminated with E. coli or salmonella.
  • People who are pregnant, over the age of 65, have a weaker immune system, and children age 5 or under should avoid eating soft French-style cheeses, pates, alfalfa sprouts, unpasteurized juices, undercooked meat or fish, uncooked hot dogs and sliced deli meats — they can be sources of Listeria infections
  • Pregnant women and cancer patients with immune compromised systems should also avoid eating fresh produce and salads out, said Sood, who explained that listeria can come from farm-fresh produce. "Buy your own food, wash your own lettuce, cook or prepare foods at home. You think you're being healthier eating fresh out, but you're always taking a chance," he said.
  • Wash your hands with hot soapy water before you chow down. It can reduce your risk of getting sick if you touched infected surfaces before a meal, Glatter said.
  • Skip next-day leftovers, said Glatter, who does not recommend storing and reheating day-old takeout food.
  • When ordering takeout, opt for busy meal times — not, for example, at 3 in the morning — otherwise you risk eating food that's been sitting out under a food lamp or unchilled for hours.
  • Ask your doctor about Hepatitis A vaccination. Infectious disease expert Sood said children are now vaccinated, but many adults were not, and it's possible to contract the infection by eating contaminated takeout food.

Each year, about 1 in 6 Americans — 48 million people — get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die due to foodborne diseases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.