On May 1, 2007, Chipotle Mexican Grill announced with much fanfare that it would begin using naturally raised meats in its burritos, tacos and salads served in the state of Kansas, in accordance with the company’s ongoing commitment to change the way Americans eat. “We’ve committed to improve the quality of every ingredient we buy,” said Steve Ellis, Chipotle’s founder, chairman and CEO in a press release. It was all part of the company’s Food With Integrity campaign, an ongoing quest “to source the highest quality food from farmers who care deeply about the welfare of their animals, their land, and their communities.” A few weeks later, Amy and I were driving to Kansas City and saw this BS billboard about hormones in meat, so I posted something on the early version of the blog. A QA dude from Chipotle called me the next day and was curious about why I thought Chipotle sucked at (microbial) food safety. I told him some anecdotal — and research-based — stuff about how companies that are so focused on marketing whatever is trendy tend to forget the microbial basics and get in trouble further on down the road. Chipotle has been further on up the road for many years. For the wrong reasons. Chipotle joins a handful of sandwich joints that are favored by self-styled hipster university students and professors who should know better — Jimmy John’s immediately comes to mind with their recurrent raw sprout-related outbreaks, along with Whole Foods — which are so much marketing fluff and not so much data. No different than the government minister or university president who preaches the virtue of the private sector but continues to suckle on the public-sector teat. In 2007, Chipotle stated that, “The hallmarks of Food With Integrity include things like unprocessed, seasonal, family-farmed, sustainable, nutritious, naturally raised, added hormone free, organic, and artisanal.” That may be a record for most buzzwords in one sentence. What’s missing is “microbiologically safe.” As a lowly consumer, I can only hope that Chipotle holds its local suppliers to some sort of microbiological standards for food safety — maybe they cook the poop out of everything. I don’t want to hear about how sustainable it is — unless Chipotle or anyone else is going to provide data on water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and microbiological loads on local produce versus the produce provided by the big ‘ole big guys. Do farmers get pissed that anyone thinks they can grow food to feed a bunch of people? Or do they just smirk, bemused? Once again, Chipotle is the douchebag of fast food. The 2009 season premiere of South Park had a lovely sub-plot aimed at the sanctimonious Chipotle and how their food makes your ass bleed. Maybe Trey Parker and Matt Stone have been reading up on E. coli O157:H7 — or, in the current case, E. coli O26 — symptoms. You love to eat Chipotle, but you hate those blood stains in your underwear? Now you can eat all the Chipotle you want, and still have clean underwear with ChipotliAway. Stan: Why would you keep eating something that made you crap blood? Cartman: Dude, have you ever eaten Chipotle? It’s really good. The once high-flying burrito (brothers) chain has seen its shares fall nearly 30 percent since October and, last week, Chipotle said same-store sales this quarter could fall as much as 11 percent because of the news. At an investor conference on Tuesday, Chief Financial Officer Jack Hartung laid a good chunk of blame of how big a problem this outbreak has become for Chipotle on two culprits: the government and the media. That’s fairly inauthentic for a chain that allegedly prides itself on authenticity and has benefited tremendously from fawning media coverage. In particular, Hartung took issue with what he characterized as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) way of reporting developments in the outbreak, specifically the manner in which CDC has been reporting one incident at a time rather than a quick, broad probe. “It’s been fueled by the sort of unusual, even unorthodox, way the CDC has chosen to announce cases related to the original outbreak in the Northwest,” Hartung told Wall Street analysts. “They’ve done that a couple of times now and they’re not announcing new cases — they’re simply announcing new reporting to them from local health agencies.” Get over it, Jack. That’s the way public health works. Chipotle said after it has an all-clear from CDC, it plans to issue full-page open letters in newspapers (who reads newspapers?), as well as some “critically placed interviews” to tell consumers the issue is over and the steps it has taken and to invite them back into the restaurants. Its plans also include more traditional marketing than it has done before and increased use of direct mail, which could include offers such as a buy-one, get-one coupon. Other communication plans include social media outreach, a way the company has long communicated with its biggest fans. Chipotle stopped sending its sometimes humorous tweets out to the public when the issue began, with no tweets from Oct. 31 through Nov. 8. It has been responding with direct tweets in recent days, but its last mass message from @ChipotleTweets appears to have been posted on Dec. 3 — the day before additional E. coli cases were confirmed by the CDC and the company issued its sales outlook. Despite all of the attention and the sharp decline in sales following the outbreak, Chipotle said it has been studying consumer feedback about E. coli since Nov. 1 and has found only 57 percent of its customers know about the issue. So, I guess 43 percent do. PR fairytale. The company has made changes to its food safety protocols. Among them, it is now dicing tomatoes and chopping cilantro in commissaries, where the produce is sanitized and hermetically sealed before being delivered to restaurants. A similar procedure is being used for lettuce, while items such as avocados and jalapeños are still prepared in the restaurants, the company said. At this point, Chipotle does not plan to raise prices due to the higher food safety costs. It left open the possibility of such price increases starting in 2017, after it has let the costs crimp its margins and worked on improving its efficiencies. Have no doubt, hipsters, Chipotle is a business, leveraging sound bites to make a buck. Too bad if you barf.
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