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Publisher’s Platform: Author blames food “Bourne” illness on Chipotle

Opinion

Twitter bird food Bourne illnessOn July 7th shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill were trading below $400 following a tweet by Eric Van Lustbader, author of the Jason Bourne series, indicating that eating at a Manhattan-based restaurant location resulted in the hospitalization of his editor.Chipotle spokesperson Chris Arnold responded: “we are aware of the post made on Twitter, however there have been no reports of illnesses at any of our New York restaurants.”I am sorry that Mr. Lustbader’s editor became ill with what may or may not have been a food “bourne” illness.  However, even when a person has a legitimate foodborne illness, it is seldom the last place that they ate that causes the illness as many foodborne pathogens have incubation periods of several days as opposed to a few hours, although a few do.  Unless there was an identifiable outbreak — two or more otherwise unrelated people getting sick at the same location or after consuming the same food item — it is nearly impossible to say that an illness is linked to Chipotle.Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 4.42.52 PMHowever, Chipotle does have a large target on its 1,900 restaurant back.  In addition to the shareholder litigation over its slumping stock price, a DOJ investigation and missing its head PR guy to a cocaine bust, Chipotle has a reason for customers to point the finger — right or wrong — it had six foodborne outbreaks in six months in 2015:Seattle
When: July 2015
Sickened: 5 people
Culprit: E. coli O157:H7
Source: Unknown

Simi Valley
When: August 2015
Sickened: At least 234
Culprit: Norovirus
Source: Ill worker

Minnesota
When: August and September 2015
Sickened: 64 people
Culprit: Salmonella Newport
Source: Tomatoes

California, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington
When: October-November 2015
Sickened: 55 people
Culprit: E. coli O26
Source: Unknown

Kanasas, Oklahoma, North Dakota
When: December 2015
Sickened: 5 people
Culprit: E. coli O26
Source: Unkonown

Boston
When: December 2015
Sickened: At least 136 people
Culprit: Norovirus
Source: Ill worker

I have also discovered an unreported E. coli O103 outbreak that sickened four in California, Colorado and Oregon in October and November 2015.

So, how long until an errant tweet does not drop Chipotle stock $300,000,000 in an afternoon? How long will Chipotle be the first place thought of if your editor has a stomach ache? And, more to the point, how can Chipotle prevent the fact of a linked illness or even the perception that an illness was caused by Chipotle?

The passage of time with no additional confirmed illnesses will ease the memories that began in July of 2015 reaching a peak in December – the key being no additional confirmed illnesses.

The fact is that there is no guarantee when serving food that there will never be an outbreak. However, changing your company culture to one with the added focus on food safety reduces the risk of poisoning customers and of continuing to spin in an ongoing negative media cycle.

Can Chipotle pull it off? My bet is that it can.

Several months ago I penned an Op-Ed, “12 Steps to Food Safety” where I gave Chipotle some unasked for advice.  Interestingly, it has chosen to begin implementing some of the steps. It has hired a “Team of Rivals” to try and institute a culture of food safety. Mansour Samadapour, Dave Theno, James Marsden and David Acheson. As another friend and expert stated: “If I had to put together a dream team to fix something, you could do a lot worse,” said Don Schaffner, a food science professor at Rutgers University.

So, I could complain that Chipotle has not openly agreed to all my 12 points, but hiring, and listening to these experts will likely move Chipotle from the first place you think of when you’re feeling bad to the last.

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