After being responsible within a six-month window for five outbreaks sickening at least 355 people with various pathogens and viruses — and also closing at least 62 of its restaurants — there’s plenty of interest in Chipotle Mexican Grill’s next move. The company has a lot on its plate right now as it works to win back the confidence of the market, regulators, and a once-loyal cadre of customers. For the food safety community, however, Chipotle management has already gone public with its plans. Among the most significant are:
- The commissary approach is back. Just as it did prior to 2014, Chipotle will process produce before it gets to the individual restaurant by dicing, sanitizing, and hermetically sealing tomatoes, cilantro and lettuce.
- IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group is in. Led by Seattle’s Dr. Mansour Samadpour, IEH brings its own significant credibility to Chipotle’s table. Known to many within the food safety community simply as “Mansour,” the microbiologist says he’s going to deliver “a more robust food safety program to ensure the highest level of safety and the best quality of all meals served at Chipotle.”
- Everything in the food is again on the table. A farm-to-fork assessment of every ingredient the company uses is underway. High-resolution DNA-based testing will be used to make sure all ingredients are safe before they are shipped out to restaurants, and end-of-shelf-life testing will be used to pull items reaching expiration.
- People are not being left out. Chipotle is going to step up working with vendors and suppliers to tighten down its supply chain and increase food safety and food handling training for all employees.
Based on the epidemiological work, there is little doubt about Chipotle being responsible for any of the outbreaks with which it has recently been associated. The E. coli o26 outbreak is likely some variety of produce, but, as is often the case, finding any leftover evidence of contaminated produce after most, or all, of it has been consumed is a nearly impossible task. Chipotle make the same point on its website, stating, “We serve more than 1 million customers a day in our restaurants, and use thousands of pounds of fresh produce and meat in our restaurants every day. Because of the volume of business our restaurants do, it is likely that the source of the E. coli was already out of our supply chain by the time anyone showed signs of illness.” Chipotle is trying to calm customer’s fears by making these points:
- The company has performed more than 2,500 tests of food, restaurant surfaces, and equipment, and all showed no sign of E. coli.
- It was confirmed that none of the company’s employees in the affected restaurants had E. coli. (Also, no Chipotle employees have had E. coli stemming from this incident.)
- It is testing fresh produce, raw meat, and dairy items (cheese and sour cream) prior to restocking restaurants and implementing additional safety procedures, and audits, in all of its 2,000 restaurants to ensure that robust food safety standards are in place.
- The company is working closely with federal, state, and local government agencies to ensure that robust food safety standards are in place.
- It has replaced all ingredients in restaurants that were closed.
- The company is conducting additional deep cleaning and sanitization in all Chipotle restaurants nationwide.
- It is going above and beyond the required testing and enhancing nationwide testing of produce and fresh meat.
Chipotle founder and co-chief executive Steve Ells was on The TODAY Show Dec. 10 to apologize to the outbreak victims. “I have to say I’m sorry for the people that got sick,” he said. “They’re having a tough time. I feel terrible about that, and we’re doing a lot to rectify this and make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Since then, Chipotle stock has dropped another $20 per share. Then again, it has avoided a free-fall level where analysts say it cannot go without risking the company’s future.
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