From The Frying Pan To The Fire? Chipotle’s Food Safety Crisis

By now, most people know of the food safety woes facing Chipotle Mexican Grill. The saga began in July with six foodborne illness outbreaks allegedly linked to Chipotle locations across 16 states in the USA, involving three pathogens in multiple instances (E. coli, norovirus, and salmonella). The outbreaks sickened hundreds of people. What is Chipotle doing to clean up the mess and what can the food industry learn from the crisis?

TIMELINE ON CHIPOTLE FOODBORNE ILLNESS OUTBREAKS

First, a quick refresher on the details of the outbreaks (with the help of Food Safety News):

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The complex history of the outbreaks between July 2015 and February 2016 reveals systemic food safety failures in the company, famous for its emphasis on local and organic produce and on-site food preparation.

Chipotle is feeling the heat from the public spotlight on their food safety standards and their responses have slowly escalated as the breadth of the problem made itself known to their consumers. Over the past few months, Chipotle executives have announced numerous enhancements to their food safety procedures, culminating in the February 8th closure of all their US locations for a four-hour food safety seminar held with employees across the country.

Despite the new measures announced by the company, the fact that no cause has been found for all E. coli incidences is of serious concern. In addition, though Chipotle blames their tomato supplier for the salmonella outbreak, the supplier claims that none of their other customers have reported illnesses associated with the shipments of tomatoes during that time. The point that the pathogen entered the food supply remains unidentified.

Responding adequately to the outbreaks without sufficient knowledge as to what caused them is a daunting task. So far, Chipotle has announced several initiatives to address the problem. Here are four things they are trying to achieve with their new food safety measures.

#1: CREATING A CULTURE OF FOOD SAFETY

The norovirus outbreak is perhaps the easiest to address. Previously, Chipotle employees were only granted two days of sick leave, which may have encouraged employees to show up for work even if they were ill. Since norovirus is extremely contagious, food companies must be equally vigilant in ensuring their employees report illnesses as well as providing an environment in which employees are encouraged and able to report their illnesses without fear of financial loss.

New programs introduced after the nationwide closure of restaurants for staff training have extended paid sick leave to five days after the disappearance of the last symptom of the illness. An SSR (Safety, Security, and Risk) center has been established to monitor employee illnesses across locations and implement measures to close a location immediately upon learning that an employee or customer has shown symptoms of a contagious illness. Improved sanitation procedures have been introduced, focusing on measures like hand-washing and sanitizing counters and equipment more frequently. In addition, they are attempting to centralize responsibility for food safety within each restaurant to ensure that procedures are followed.

A culture of food safety does not start or end with employees. Chipotle announced a $10 million program to assist local food suppliers in enhancing their food safety plans, though very little information is available about the implementation of this program.

#2: REDUCING THE RISK OF CONTAMINATION

The salmonella outbreak demonstrated that the risk of contamination in Chipotle restaurants, especially with the emphasis on fresh ingredients, is too high One way to reduce the risk is centralizing the processing and testing of high-risk ingredients. Tomatoes, lettuce, bell peppers, and beef will now be diced at a central kitchen, which may help in identifying the source of future outbreaks should they occur.

Farms and central kitchens will also use high resolution testing at up to two points in the supply chain (farm and kitchen) in the attempt to identify pathogens before they enter restaurants, to tempered reviews. At each restaurant, lemons, limes, jalapeños, onions, and avocados will be quickly blanched before use in order to reduce the risk of pathogens on-site. Finally, chicken and steak will be marinated after closing in isolation from fresh produce ingredients.

#3: ENFORCING NEW FOOD SAFETY MEASURES

In order to attempt enforcement of these new measures, Chipotle announced that company “field leaders trained in food safety” will conduct weekly inspections of facilities in addition to multiple annual inspection from the corporate food safety team, as well as independent experts and local government health officials.

The company may get help from government officials whether they want it or not. While the E. coli investigation was closed by the CDC in early February, the FDA and the Central District of California have opened a criminal investigation into the Simi Valley norovirus outbreak. The subpoena was extended in January to include the entire corporate entity and officials have requested documentation extending back three years. Investigators are looking into claims that the company failed to report the norovirus outbreak until well after it was evident that there was a problem, drawing suspicion of a cover-up. It remains to be seen how this will affect new food safety measures.

#4: RECOVERING CONSUMER AND INVESTOR TRUST

While some may have rightly accused Chipotle of engaging in a blame game, the cost to Chipotle’s reputation has shown itself clearly in massive profit losses. With the $6 billion fall of its stock from July to January (from a 52-week high of $758 to a 52-week low of $399), the company is answerable not only to consumers, but to investors. In fact, some stockholders are suing for damages. In parallel to the criminal investigation, consumer lawsuits continue to pile in.

The restaurant chain has a long way to go to recover its reputation after a series of seemingly never-ending crises that have forced many to recognize the difference between those marketing “healthy” food, to actually safe food. Chipotle is attempting to find a delicate balance between demonstrating transparency and accountability, and trying to change the subject.

On the one hand, their website shows an effort to highlight food safety issues and provide information about the majority of the outbreaks discussed in this article. At the same time, the $50 million marketing campaign announced in January is unlikely to focus on the company’s food safety failures; instead, it is reasonable to expect more along the lines of the current free burrito campaign.

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The food industry waits eagerly to learn from Chipotle’s crisis and response, asking two very different questions. Firstly, in an increasingly complex supply chain, are Chipotle’s new food safety measures targeting the right processes and hazards? Secondly, will these measures help Chipotle recover its business?

These two questions are not necessarily linked, as one can be achieved without the other. While fans of the restaurant chain hope for quiet, the food industry is certainly buzzing while we watch.

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