In the last half of 2015, around 500 people
in states ranging from California to Massachusetts had two things in common:
They all ate at Chipotle, and they all had severe diarrhea.
Every year there are hundreds of food poisoning outbreaks in the US, but it’s unusual for
one company to see six outbreaks, from three different germs, in just six months.
“In 22 years of doing these kinds of cases, I can’t think of a chain that has ever had that happen.”
Obviously, not ideal for a company whose brand is serving higher-quality food.
“If you’re like other Americans, you love to eat Chipotle, but you hate all those terrible
blood stains in your underwear.” To understand how Chipotle plans to fix it,
you have to look at the different ways the food was contaminated.
For the two large outbreaks in Boston and Simi Valley, California, the pathogen was
norovirus. “I just vomited for many hours straight.”
Norovirus doesn’t come from the food supply itself, but rather from a restaurant employee
who was sick but came to work anyway. The two locations spreading norovirus were
closed and sanitized, and Chipotle says it will strengthen employee training.
An outbreak at 22 Chipotle locations in Minnesota involved Salmonella bacteria, which did come
from the food itself. “State health officials now are blaming
tomatoes” Chipotle then switched to a different tomato
supplier. But the E. coli outbreak has been tougher
to nail down, in part because cases popped up in nine different states. And then:
“There is more trouble for Chipotle.” The CDC later announced more E. coli cases
from Kansas and Oklahoma, which may or may not be related to the previous
outbreak. The types of E. coli that make humans sick
live in the intestines of cattle. So people can often get infected from undercooked
beef. But fruits and vegetables exposed to contaminated
water or manure can also transmit the bacteria. So here’s what’s a little unnerving for
Chipotle customers. “The CEO said that they have tested every
single one of the 64 ingredients that Chipotle uses, and they still can’t find the problem.”
Unfortunately, in multistate cases, the CDC can identify the specific source of the food
poisoning only about half the time. And it’s particularly challenging with the
type of food Chipotle serves. “Almost everything that is in a burrito
is in a taco is in a taco bowl. So it’s hard to parse out and say, ‘Oh it was the cilantro,
oh it was the lettuce.'” In the meantime, Chipotle hired an expert
to devise a wide-scale food safety plan. It includes routine DNA testing of ingredients
before they’re shipped to restaurants. “The testing protocols that he sets up on
the supply-chain are pretty rigorous. So assuming you can get the supply chain to go along with you, I think that’s going to be a really positive thing, and especially if they want to do fresh items in their stores.” There can be a tradeoff between safe food and fresh food, as Chipotle seems to be acknowledging.
Instead of shredding cheese and chopping tomatoes, lettuce, and cilantro inside the restaurants,
they’ll now be processed and packaged off-site in centralized kitchens.
Chipotle’s stock has been dropping, but it’s worth remembering that other chains
have weathered much worse. In 1993, E. coli from undercooked hamburgers
at Jack in the Box sickened 700 people and killed 4 children.
“They brought in a vice president in charge of food safety who had carte blanche to turn
the company around from a food safety perspective. I think that’s something that Chipotle really
needs to think pretty hard about doing.” After the Jack in the Box outbreak was over,
they launched a marketing campaign to signal the corporate overhaul.
“I’m ready to make Jack in the Box better than ever.” The message wasn’t subtle.