State Repression in Egypt Worst in Decades, Says Activist

Compliments of The Guardian 

The scale of state repression in Egypt is greater today than it has been for generations, one of the country’s most prominent journalists and human rights advocates has told the Guardian.

Hossam Bahgat, an investigative reporter who was recently detained by Egypt’s military intelligence agency, spoke out ahead of the fifth anniversary of the start of Egypt’s revolution on Monday – the run-up to which has seen an unprecedented crackdown by security forces against opposition and dissent.

“This is without doubt the worst we’ve ever seen,” said Bahgat, citing restrictions on media outlets, a spike in the number of political prisoners, forced disappearances, and alleged extrajudicial killings of Islamists by the state.

“The level of repression now is significantly higher than it was under the Mubarak regime, and people from older generations say it is worse than even the worst periods of the 1950s and 1960s [under the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser].”

In an effort to ward off any protests half a decade on from the uprising thattoppled the former president Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian authorities haveraided thousands of homes in Cairo and installed new surveillance infrastructure around Tahrir Square.

Preachers have reportedly been instructed by the state to give sermons declaring it a sin to demonstrate against the government, while cafes, cultural institutions and book publishers have all been investigated by security agencies.

Under the country’s protest law, implemented by executive decree soon after the military overthrow of the former Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013, participation in any unsanctioned marches or rallies is unlawful.

The Egyptian government says it is fighting terrorism and claims the country is making progress on political rights. Over the past week five Egyptian policemen were killed by gunmen in northern Sinai, while six people died in a bomb attack in Giza.

“We have paid a lot for the security and stability that we currently live in, so I ask all Egyptians for the sake of the martyrs and the blood to take care of their country,” Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the president, said in a speech to the nation on Saturday.

Bahgat argued: “The only reason that there is such a level of panic regarding public opinion is that two years ago the regime could afford to take us for granted; Sisi was worshipped and they had carte blanche to do whatever it took to impose stability.

“With all the state powers now unified under Sisi’s leadership … people are now starting to ask questions of him.”

Bahgat is the founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of Egypt’s most acclaimed human rights organisations. Since 2014 he has worked as a journalist with Mada Masr, an independent media outlet known for covering news stories that other parts of the Egyptian press shy away from.

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First Monkeys with Autism Created in China

Compliments of Technology Review 

Scientists in China say they used genetic engineering to create monkeys with a version of autism, an achievement that could make it easier to test treatments but that raises thorny practical and ethical questions over how useful such animal models will be.

Neuroscientist Zilong Qiu of the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences says his team has generated more than a dozen monkeys with a genetic error that in human children causes a rare syndrome whose symptoms include mental retardation and autistic features, such as repetitive speech and restricted interests.

Autism refers to any of a spectrum of intellectual and behavioral disorders identified in about one in 68 children in the U.S., and whose genetic underpinnings are starting to be unraveled (see “Solving the Autism Puzzle”).

The altered monkeys displayed shared psychiatric symptoms, including pacing in circles and interacting less with other monkeys. They became stressed more easily when researchers stared them in the eyes. The abnormal monkeys would “grunt, coo, and scream” more often if challenged in this way, according to Qiu’s team, and two became “severely sick” in ways that “echoed” the problems human children with the gene defect.

“The monkeys show very similar behavior [to] human autism patients,” Qiu said during a conference call organized by Nature, the journal that published the report today. “We think it provides a very unique model.”

Years of studies with mice suffering from autism-like disorders have provided disappointingly few leads on how to solve the problem in people. But mice have very different brains from our own. For instance, they lack a prefrontal cortex, the brain area where some human psychiatric disorders seem to be centered.

Qiu says that’s the reason his institute chose to create autistic monkeys. He says scientists would now be able to study what brain networks had been disrupted, as well as try out treatments, such as deep-brain stimulation. Qiu says his group would also attempt to reverse the symptoms it created by erasing the genetic error in live animals. That could be done using new genome-editing technologies, such as CRISPR, he says.

Genetically altered monkeys have been reported previously, including at least one animal in China with a defect in an autism gene. However, Qiu’s report appears to be the first time that researchers have generated enough animals to observe stereotypical behavioral changes, says Afonso Silva, a scientist who works with transgenic monkeys at the National Institutes of Health.

Some scientists questioned whether the model developed in China was close enough to autism to really shed any light on human disease. “I think we need to be cautious calling this a model … it does not quite accomplish that,” says Huda Zoghbi, whose lab at the Baylor College of Medicine discovered in 1999 that damage to the MECP2 gene causes Rett syndrome, a form of autism affecting girls.

Although the monkeys exhibited common behaviors, like repetitive circling in their cages, Zoghbi says these are not the same as those displayed in human children. More typical symptoms like seizures were absent, she said, while the monkeys’ circling doesn’t have an analog in humans. “For the sake of the field and the families it is important that we study models that are constructed to genetically mimic what happens in humans and that reproduce features of the syndrome as closely as possible,” Zoghbi says. “It is important that we hold [these] standards to nonhuman primate models.”

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Zika Virus: Outbreak ‘Likely to Spread Across Americas’ Says WHO

Compliments of BBC

The Zika virus is likely to spread across nearly all of the Americas, the World Health Organization has warned.

The infection, which causes symptoms including mild fever, conjunctivitis and headache, has already been found in 21 countries in the Caribbean, North and South America.

It has been linked to thousands of babies being born with underdeveloped brains and some countries have advised women not to get pregnant.

No treatment or vaccine is available.

The virus was first detected in 1947 in monkeys in Africa. There have since been small, short-lived outbreaks in people on the continent, parts of Asia and in the Pacific Islands.

Zika spread

But it has spread on a massive scale in the Americas, where transmission was first detected in Brazil in May 2015.

Large numbers of the mosquitoes which carry the virus and a lack of any natural immunity is thought to be helping the infection to spread rapidly.


Zika is transmitted by the bite of Aedes mosquitoes, which are found in all countries in the region except Canada and Chile.

In a statement, The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the regional office of the WHO, said: “PAHO anticipates that Zika virus will continue to spread and will likely reach all countries and territories of the region where Aedes mosquitoes are found.”

PAHO is advising people to protect themselves from the mosquitoes, which also spread dengue fever and chikungunya.

It also confirmed the virus had been detected in semen and there was “one case of possible person-to-person sexual transmission” but further evidence was still needed.

Around 80% of infections do not result in symptoms.

But the biggest concern is the potential impact on babies developing in the womb. There have been around 3,500 reported cases of microcephaly – babies born with tiny brains – in Brazil alone since October.

PAHO warned pregnant women to be “especially careful” and to see their doctor before and after visiting areas affected by the virus.

Graphic showing babies' head size

Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador and Jamaica last week recommended women delay pregnancies until more was known about the virus.

Although officially PAHO says “any decision to defer pregnancy is an individual one between a woman, her partner and her healthcare provider”.

Maria Conceicao Queiroz said there was a sense of fear where she lives near the Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro: “Every one is at risk, we’re all scared of getting Zika.

“We’re surrounded with dirty water, polluted water, but what can we do but put repellent on, to try to keep the mosquitoes away.”

Global threat

Prof Laura Rodrigues, a fellow of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said some data suggested that up to one-in-fifty babies had birth defects in one of the worst hit areas – Pernambuco state in Brazil.

She said: “Until November we knew nothing, this has caught us by surprise and we’re trying to learn as fast as we can.

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Lawsuit challenges North Carolina Law That Penalizes Whistleblowers

Compliments of Aljazeera 

A new North Carolina law that lets agricultural and other industry interests sue whistleblowers is being challenged by a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday by consumer advocates and animal rights groups, who say it is unconstitutional.

The law allows companies to sue undercover activists or even their own whistleblowing employees for documenting violations of environmental or worker safety rules. Opponents say the law would prevent the reporting of abuses not just of animals, but of children in day cares facilities and of the elderly in nursing homes.

The suit seeks to overturn the law.

The law “interferes with basic American concepts of freedom of expression,” said David Muraskin, food safety and health attorney with Public Justice, a public interest group that represents the activist groups that brought the suit. “This is a statute designed to gag North Carolina citizens, and prevent them from informing the public and even their own government.”

Secret recordings by undercover animal rights groups have revealed allegations of unsafe or unclean business practices, often in slaughterhouses. Food companies have lobbied in state legislatures across the country for the imposition of so called “agricultural gag” or “ag gag” laws to allow lawsuits against whistleblowers. Those sued could be forced to pay substantial damages to the companies.

Such ag gag laws in other states have faced criticism on similar grounds. A federal judge last year struck down one in Idaho as unconstitutional, and challenges remain to similar measures in Wyoming and Utah, Muraskin said.

Environmental groups have expressed concern that North Carolina’s pig farming industry could escape accountability under the law, according to news website Think Progress. Swine manure can pollute ground water if not properly disposed.

The plaintiffs in the suit include public advocacy groups: Government Accountability Project, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Center for Food Safety, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Farm Sanctuary, and Food and Water Watch.

The law “places the safety of our families, our food supply, and animals at risk, and it attempts to bully and threaten those working for transparency, free speech and the public good,” the groups said in a joint statement.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed the legislation in June, but the legislature overrode McRory’s veto days later. The law took effect Jan. 1 this year.

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Minorities Exploited by Warren Buffett’s Mobile-Home Empire

Compliments of Seattle Times 

After a few years living with her sister, Rose Mary Zunie, 59, was ready to move into a place of her own.

So, on an arid Saturday morning this past summer, the sisters piled into a friend’s pickup truck and headed for a mobile-home sales lot here just outside the impoverished Navajo reservation.

The women — one in a long, colorful tribal skirt, another wearing turquoise jewelry, a traditional talisman against evil — were steered to a salesman who spoke Navajo, just like the voice on the store’s radio ads.

He walked them through Clayton-built homes on the lot, then into the sales center, passing a banner and posters promoting one subprime lender: Vanderbilt Mortgage, a Clayton subsidiary. Inside, he handed them a Vanderbilt sales pamphlet.

“Vanderbilt is the only one that finances on the reservation,” he told the women.

His claim, which the women caught on tape, was a lie. And it was illegal.

Clayton Homes’ sales lot in Gallup, N.M., markets the dream of homeownership to Navajo people, many of whom live in poverty. (Donovan Quintero)
Clayton Homes’ sales lot in Gallup, N.M., markets the dream of homeownership to Navajo people, many of whom live in poverty. (Donovan Quintero)

It is just one in a pattern of deceptions that Clayton has used to help extract billions from poor customers around the country — particularly people of color, who make up a substantial and growing portion of its business.

The company is controlled by Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest men, but its methods hardly match Buffett’s honest, folksy image: Clayton systematically pursues unwitting minority homebuyers and baits them into costly subprime loans, many of which are doomed to fail, an investigation by The Seattle Times and BuzzFeed News has found.

Clayton’s predatory practices have damaged minority communities — from rural black enclaves in the Louisiana Delta, across Spanish-speaking swaths of Texas, to Native American reservations in the Southwest. Many customers end up losing their homes, thousands of dollars in down payments, or even land they’d owned outright.

Over the 12 years since Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway bought Clayton Homes Inc., the company has grown to dominate virtually every aspect of America’s mobile-home industry. It builds nearly half the new manufactured homes sold in this country every year, making it the most prolific U.S. homebuilder of any type. It sells them through a network of more than 1,600 dealerships. And it finances more mobile-home loans than any other lender by a factor of more than seven.

In minority communities, Clayton’s grip on the lending market verges on monopolistic: Last year, according to federal data, Clayton made 72 percent of the loans to black people who financed mobile homes.

The company’s in-house lender, Vanderbilt Mortgage, charges minority borrowers substantially higher rates, on average, than their white counterparts. In fact, federal data shows that Vanderbilt typically charges black people who make over $75,000 a year slightly more than white people who make only $35,000.

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German Gangs Are Beating Up Immigrants After Syrian Refugees Sexually Assault Germany’s Women

Compliments of India Times 

Days after the sexual assaults on German women in Cologne city came to light, local gangs are uniting in a “manhunt” of foreigners.  And just this weekend, two Pakistanis and a Syrian man were injured in attacks by gangs of people in Cologne, German police said. On New Year’s Eve, Cologne was the scene of dozens of assaults on women, a number that has grown into hundreds as more and women have come forward to register complaints.

gangs germany


Local newspaper Express reported that the attackers were members of rocker and hooligan gangs who via Facebook arranged to meet in downtown Cologne to start a “manhunt” of foreigners.

The assaults on women in Cologne and other German cities have prompted more than 600 criminal complaints, with the police investigation focusing on asylum seekers and migrants

police gangs germany


The assaults, ranging from theft to sexual molestation, have prompted a highly charged debate in Germany about Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy on refugees and migrants, more than one million of whom entered the country last year. Cologne police said a group of about 20 people attacked six Pakistanis on Sunday evening, injuring two of them. In another incident a few minutes later, a group of five people attacked and injured a Syrian man, police said.

On Monday, a regional parliamentary commission in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, whose largest city is Cologne, will question police and others about the events on New Year’s Eve.

Attack syrian immigrants


The anti-Islam political movement, PEGIDA, whose supporters threw bottles and fire crackers at a march in Cologne on Saturday before being dispersed by riot police, will hold a rally in the eastern German city of Leipzig on Monday evening.

The attacks on women in Cologne have also sparked a debate about tougher rules for migrants who break the law, faster deportation procedures and increased security measures such as more video surveillance in public areas and more police.

movement was built on a similar issue.

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Upstate NY Police Seize $8.5 Million in Assets a Year Without Having to Prove a Crime

Compliments of Syracuse 

Justin Lucas gathered up $50,000 in cash in 2011 to bail his brother out of jail on a drug charge.

But when Lucas brought the money to the Otsego County jail in a brown paper bag, sheriff’s deputies seized the cash without releasing his brother. They told him the money was the subject of a drug investigation.

Lucas’ brother eventually pleaded guilty to a felony marijuana possession charge. But even with the case over, Lucas couldn’t get his money back. The sheriff’s office had already used a federal law to force him to forfeit the money to the government.

Investigators cited the fact that their drug-sniffing dog picked up the scent of marijuana on the cash, and Lucas’ admission that $10,000 of it had come from his brother’s co-defendant.

The federal civil asset forfeiture law allows local police to get up to 80 percent of money or property seized, with the rest going to the federal government for their role in the investigations and for administering the program.

Lucas’ case was among 117 in the 32-county Northern District of New York over the past five years in which the federal government used the law to seize $43 million in assets without having to charge the owners with a crime.

The Justice Department announced last month that it was shutting down the program, at least temporarily, under which the seized assets are shared among the police agencies involved in investigations. Federal officials cited budget constraints.

New York state seized more assets per capita under the civil asset forfeiture law than all but one other state in 2014. Police have been criticized for abusing the law to get quick access to money that they spend on new equipment, training and other expenses. They’re not allowed to use the money to pay salaries.

A Syracuse lawyer who specializes in fighting civil asset forfeitures says prosecutors in the Northern District of New York use the law fairly.

The bail seizure in Otsego County was an exception, according to Nicholas Lucas’ lawyer, Wayne Smith.

“A law-abiding citizen posts bail and they seize it? I mean, it’s outrageous,” Smith said. “In a case where a brother bails out a brother under the facts of this case, it not only doesn’t pass the laugh test – it pisses you off a little because it could happen to anybody.”

Nicholas Lucas took the case to court, but U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe ruled he didn’t have standing to get the money back.

Smith appealed, and the case was argued in January. In unheard-of turnaround time, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s ruling the day after the lawyers argued the case in court.

“They apparently felt strongly about what was done here,” Smith said.

After that, federal prosecutors dropped the case and returned the money to Nicholas Lucas. The police had held onto it for nearly four years.

The prosecutors cited a new policy issued in January 2014 from then-Attorney General Eric Holder that was designed to combat the growing criticism that the civil asset forfeiture law was being abused by police across the country.

“Because of the change of policy, we decided it would not be a case we would take, so we gave the money back,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Tamara Thomson, who handles civil asset forfeiture cases in Syracuse.

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Goldman to Pay Up to $5 Billion to Settle Claims of Faulty Mortgages

Compliments of Times New Roman 

More than seven years after the worst of the financial crisis, Goldman Sachs is again paying a price for the role it played.

The Wall Street firm said on Thursday it had agreed to a civil settlement of up to $5 billion with federal prosecutors and regulators to resolve claims stemming from the marketing and selling of faulty mortgage securities to investors.

Goldman announced the settlement — the final terms of which are still being negotiated — after the markets closed.

Goldman, which is scheduled to report fourth-quarter earnings on Wednesday, said the settlement would reduce earnings in that period by approximately $1.5 billion on an after-tax basis.

In the early days of the financial crisis, Goldman Sachs received an outsize share of criticism from politicians and the media as its trading desk made money by betting against the housing market in the run-up to the crisis.

But in the end, Goldman’s role in churning out faulty mortgages and securities backed by home loans to borrowers who could not afford them was smaller than that of many other Wall Street firms like Bank of America or JPMorgan Chase.

As a result, Goldman’s settlement is far smaller than the sums paid by other firms for selling flawed mortgage securities. Goldman is among the last firms to reach a civil settlement with a task force of federal prosecutors, state attorneys general and regulators empowered to investigate Wall Street’s role in cobbling together securities from all the mortgages that borrowers found themselves unable to afford.

The agreement in principle requires Goldman to pay $2.385 billion in civil penalties and $875 million in cash and provide up to $1.8 billion in relief to consumers.

Bank of America in 2014 paid about $16.6 billion in a similar settlement with federal and state agencies, and JPMorgan Chase paid about $13 billion in 2013. In all, the banks have paid more than $40 billion in settlements to resolve claims investigated by the task force.

All the mortgage settlements have included a certain amount of so-called soft money that is intended for loan modifications or foreclosure relief for consumers harmed by the bad mortgages. Some consumer advocates have raised concerns about how that money is allocated and how much comes directly from each bank’s bottom line. In the case of Goldman, the soft money is the $1.8 billion.

In the case of Bank of America, the soft dollar portion of its settlement totaled about $7 billion. But Bank of America was involved in writing far more mortgages to consumers than Goldman Sachs, and it is unclear exactly how Goldman’s consumer relief will be doled out and to whom.

The settlement is on top of the approximately $3 billion Goldman paid to the Federal Housing Finance Agency in 2014 to settle claims with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac over the sale of flawed mortgage securities. In that deal, Goldman settled the matter by buying back bonds from the mortgage finance firms.

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Planned Parenthood Sues Anti-Abortion Group Behind Secret Videos

Compliments of NBC 

Exactly six months after the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress released its first secretly recorded video accusing Planned Parenthood of trafficking in fetal tissue, the women’s health provider has filed suit in a San Francisco federal district court.

The suit alleges that the Center for Medical Progress and its contributors and advisers, who are individually named, broke federal and state laws, including the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO, as well as invasion of privacy and recording laws. It asks for extensive monetary damages, saying Planned Parenthood providers have faced death threats, been forced to move or go into hiding and been picketed at their homes.

“We are filing this lawsuit to hold accountable the people behind this reckless smear campaign,” said Kathy Kneer, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, on a call with reporters.

For three years, anti-abortion activists led by David Daleiden posed as agents of a tissue procurement agency, allegedly using fake drivers’ licenses to attend closed conferences of abortion providers and try to catch them on video breaking the law. The videos, released in a series beginning in July, show Planned Parenthood staff, including doctors, casually discussing the mechanisms of donating fetal tissue after abortion for medical research purposes. The Center for Medical Progress claims the videos show Planned Parenthood is “selling baby parts” because they feature discussion of nominal fees, which Planned Parenthood maintains are legal reimbursements for costs and which it has since ceased charging. Planned Parenthood has also pointed out that none of its staffers signed the fake contracts offered by Daleiden and his associates.

No criminal charges have been brought against any party. At least eight state investigations have turned up no impropriety from Planned Parenthood, and though California state Attorney General Kamala Harris said she would look at whether the Center for Medical Progress has broken state law, no charges have been announced. But under law, Planned Parenthood has the right to bring its own case.

“The content of these videos was wrongfully and illegally obtained,” the complaint says. “Moreover, according to expert forensic analysis, Defendants’ heavily edited short videos and transcripts do not present a complete or accurate record of the events they purport to depict. Rather, the heavily edited short videos “significantly distort and misrepresent the conversations depicted.”

The lawsuit also says that in the months of July and August alone, there were 849 reported incidents of vandalism at Planed Parenthood centers, a nine-fold increase compared to the month before. It points to attempted arsons at Planned Parenthood centers in Illinois and New Orleans, as well as the November 27, 2015, shooting at a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs that killed three people and injured nine. Robert Lewis Dear, who took credit for the killings, told a Denver TV station this week,  “I picked Planned Parenthood because it’s murdering little babies.”

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Chipotle to Close aAll Restaurants for Company-Wide Meeting in February

Compliments of Fox 

Chipotle plans to close all of its stores for a few hours next month to host a company-wide meeting discussing food safety after the chain was tasked with dealing with food poisoning outbreaks last year.

Chris Arnold, a spokesman for Chipotle, told the Oregonian the meeting is expected to take place on Feb. 8 and will involve all staff members. A wide-range of topics are going to be covered in the meeting.

“We want to thank our teams for all their hard work, to discuss some of the changes we are making to enhance food safety, to talk about the restaurants role in all of that and to answer some questions from employees,” Arnold said in an email to the paper.

The company announced Wednesday it will launch a marketing campaign in February to kick off its road to recovery after the food scares. Sales plunged 30 percent in December from the food poisoning outbreaks.

First, an E. coli outbreak came to light at the end of October, with additional cases being reported over the next several weeks. Then, in what Chipotle says was an unrelated case, a norovirus sickened dozens at a Chipotle in Boston.

Last week, the company said it was subpoenaed by federal authorities as part of a criminal investigation tied to a different norovirus outbreak in California over the summer. Lawsuits have also been filed on behalf of customers sickened after eating at the chain.

Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer in Seattle, told the Oregonian that more lawsuits are coming.

“I represent a total of 75 people, but I haven’t filed all their lawsuits yet,” Marler added.

At an investment conference in Orlando, Florida on Wednesday, Chipotle executives said the company is taking measures to reduce the risk of another food scare to “near zero.” They said they would start “inviting customers back” to restaurants in February with stepped-up marketing and direct mail offers. They said food safety will not be explicitly referenced in the marketing, but that there might be a “clever headline.”

Chipotle Chief Financial Officer Jack Hartung noted the company’s recovery would be “messy,” with investments in food safety and marketing eating into profit margins.

During the half-hour presentation at the ICR conference, Chipotle founder and co-CEO Steve Ells noted customers will still see food preparation in restaurants, including the grilling of steaks and steaming of rice. That sense of freshly prepared ingredients has been one of Chipotle’s attractions as it has sought to distinguish itself from traditional fast-food chains.

Ells noted the company’s dedication to food quality in the past, and added that he was confident the company would win back customers and emerge as a stronger company.

Executives said they expect the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to declare the E. coli outbreak to be over at some point. The agency has not identified an ingredient that was responsible for the E. coli outbreak, and Chipotle has said it may never know what was to blame.

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