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Letter From The Editor: Exchange with CDC shows Chipotle still in denial

Opinion

You cannot make this stuff up.

Chipotle Mexican Grill just keeps on giving.

The Denver burrito chain was much in the news in the last half of 2015 with its back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back outbreaks involving one pathogen or another, sickening its customers and closing stores by the cluster.

Not much was left of Chipotle’s “food with integrity” reputation by the time the year ended. Chipotle’s previous history was as focused on building that image as it was building burritos.  Its the restaurant chain that riled rural American by hiring Willie Nelson to play a factory farm rant by Coldplay called “The Scientist” as just one of its marketing ploys.

The image also meant that Chipotle was down as a financial contributor to the “Right to Know” movement. This is where it gets good. It seems corporate Chipotle thinks your “Right to Know” does not include information about health risk that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta routinely provides to the American people.

Before we go further, let’s just review— for those who may have been off the planet in the second half of last year— just how often food borne illnesses were suffered by Chipotle customers last year. Here’s quick summary:

bugs_406x250Seattle — E. coli O157:H7, July 2015, five sick people, source unknown;

Simi Valley, Calif. — Norovirus, August 2015, 234 people, source was sick employee;

Minnesota — Salmonella Newport, August and September 2015, 64 sick people, source was tomatoes but it remains unclear  at what point in the field-to-fork chain the pathogen was introduced;

Nine states — E. coli O26, began October 2015 and declared over Feb. 1, 55 sick people, source unknown, states involved are California, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington; and

Three states — E. coli O26, began December 2015 declared over Feb. 1, five sick people, source unknown, states involved are Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska; and closing out in

Boston — Norovirus in December, 151 sickened.

After it made more than 500 people sick, Chipolte saw many empty tables during the first quarter of 2016 when its same store sales were off by an alarming 29.7 percent. An astonishing $325 has been erased from each CMG shares on the New York Stock Exchange. Within the past years shares that were fetching as high as 758.61. When the market opens Monday, you can likely pick them up for under $434 percent.

All that financial damage is on top of civil and criminal litigation that comes when a company finds itself responsible for such carnage. And Chipotle has also been under pressure to shore up that stock price by assigning more than a half billion dollars to buying back it’s shares. (And how much are they spending to improve food safety?)

There no doubt Chipotle management is under pressures it never before experienced. Nevertheless, when one reads the newly released Chipotle letter of last Dec. 15 to the CDC, one thought comes to mind. “What were they thinking?”

The straight story with links to both letters is best told by our own Coral Beach here, but if you just one example of how far Chipotle has fallen back consider this opening line from the New York Post: Take that, you bellyaching burrito chain.”

Through their attorney, you will see how Chipotle accuses CDC, through the media, of misinforming the public about the illnesses in one of its six outbreaks. While I always like to pick on attorneys, the fact the their letter to CDC was dated last December at about the same time its CMG executives were blaming media for their meltdown suggests that the letter to CDC was a corporate strategy, not a legal one.

The question now, is whether Chipotle’s Denver headquarters were ever accept responsibility and really move forward.

Until we read this exchange of letters, we had assumed they were not still sulking in a corner someplace. They’ve reached out to well respected food safety experts including Dr. James Marsden, Kansas State University’s former longtime beef safety expert and Dr. Mansour Samadpour, Seattle’s IEH Laboratories. I’d bet good money neither Professor Marsden nor Mansour recommending complaining to CDC about agency’s bias.

We’ve seen companies in these circumstances shut down and we’ve seen them make the changes needed to survive, and eventually thrive. For the image-conscious Chipotle the worst might well be what customers are still saying about them. They, not Coldplay’s factory farm ditty are now the butt of the jokes as Chipotle gets called names like “the diarrhea factory” by former customers.

So, Chipotle is well past the point where they should “stop digging.” Friday’s smack down by the CDC should teach the burrito chain that it is in no position to lecture about the “ongoing health threat.”

Give me break.

© Food Safety News