The food trucks and restaurants operated by the Chicken & Rice Guys remained closed for a ninth day Thursday as investigators searched for the cause of an E. coli outbreak there, but a review of health department records shows the shutdown is not the first time the chain has faced serious public safety concerns.
City officials suspended operation of one of the company’s food trucks in 2015 due to unsanitary conditions, and there was evidence of significant health problems on trucks and at one restaurant dating back to 2012.
In March 2015, an unannounced inspection of one of the company’s food trucks in Boston found the truck’s water tank was empty. It appeared that employees were not washing their hands, and the person in charge of the truck failed to monitor cleaning or sanitizing on board.
In all, there were 15 separate health and safety violations found during the truck’s inspection, including four serious violations that led inspectors to immediately close the truck for business.
Ian So, the chief executive of the Chicken & Rice Guys, said in an interview that he did not recall that shutdown and declined to comment further.
After correcting the problems, the Chicken & Rice Guys brought the truck back for reinspection about three weeks later, but inspectors found several new and serious violations that the company fixed before the truck was allowed to begin serving food again.
The findings contradict comments made last week by William Christopher, the city’s commissioner of Inspectional Services, who said there were no prior suspensions or major violations at any of the Boston trucks or at the chain’s three brick-and-mortar locations in Boston.
City inspectors also found several other violations over the last five years on at least one of the trucks and in one of the restaurants. Food on the truck was stored at the wrong temperatures, including chicken and mayonnaise-based sauces that were left too warm. Also, a worker was seen pulling hair back with his or her hands and then putting on gloves without washing the hands in front of an inspector.
A separate violation at the restaurant’s 85 Bedford St. location cited the facility for having a too-low sneeze guard at its front counter, a violation city officials said could lead to cross contamination.
This week, Christopher said the previous events had no bearing on the current suspension because the problems took place two years ago.
“I do not see a connection with the events that took place recently,” he said, referring to the E. coli contamination.
The city has not yet determined what caused the recent E. coli outbreak.
City and state health investigators say they are awaiting the results of specimens taken from the company’s food as well as its 100 employees, in hopes of finding a cause.
The entire business was shut down on April 11, when health officials matched a strain of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli 0157:H7, the most common type of E. coli infection in the United States. This type of E. coli bacteria causes stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, and in some cases fatal kidney failure.
The city has said that 15 people were sickened, 10 of whom were hospitalized. No further details about their conditions have been available.
Dr. Kyle Staller, a physician with the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Gastroenterology Associates, said the majority of E. coli outbreaks in the United States stem from undercooked meat.
There are, however, outbreaks that occur when people ingest unwashed vegetables contaminated with animal fecal matter carrying E. coli bacteria. More unusual, he said, is person-to-person transmission, which can occur if a person infected with E. coli does not wash their hands and spreads the bacteria.
Staller said the lack of hand-washing that led to the Chicken & Rice Guys 2015 food truck suspension could be important because it may indicate lax practices when it comes to washing produce or employee hand-washing.
“You certainly have a recipe for potential transmission,” Staller said of the past violations. “It’s an important part of the story.”
Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said E. coli outbreaks can be devastating for a business, even if the exact cause of the outbreak is never identified. That happens in “a fair amount of cases,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the one left carrying the burden of that is the name on the restaurant,” Luz said. “Look what Chipotle had to dig themselves out of.”
In 2015, Chipotle customers in nine states were sickened with E. coli. In a separate incident, about 140 contracted norovirus after eating at a Brighton location.
The number of food trucks in Boston has exploded in recent years, with trucks flooding college hotspots and busy downtown neighborhoods. The trend is so big that Mayor Martin J. Walsh in February convened a Food Truck Advisory Committee, a group of 10 food truck operators that provide recommendations on the city’s policies and permitting. So, the chief executive of the Chicken & Rice Guys, serves on that board.
City officials said the committee is focused on economic development opportunities for the entrepreneurs who run many of the trucks and not on health concerns. They declined to comment further.Megan Woolhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.