Denver, we have a problem.

Despite a corporate policy of “zero tolerance” for food safety mistakes, the most infamous burrito chain in the country continues to make its customers sick. Laboratory test results announced this week by public health officials in Delaware County, OH, confirmed what disease detectives had suspected for a couple of weeks. People who became ill after eating food from a Powell, OH, Chipotle restaurant in late July had been infected with the foodborne bacteria Clostridium perfringens.


Nerds, epidemiologists and other folks familiar with the causes of food poisoning often refer to Chipotle’s bacteria du jour as C. perfringens. That same group also knows C. perfringens is kept at bay by following the most basic of food safety rules: Keep hot foods hot. Yep. That’s it. Keep hot foods hot. That didn’t happen at the Chipotle on Sawmill Parkway in Powell, OH. Because of the lapse, 650 people suffered the vile effects of food poisoning.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to dump on the rank and file — poop pun intended. But, someone low on the totem pole was likely at least partially responsible for the food safety failure. And, if the big bosses in Denver can figure out who to pin it on, they will no doubt make good on corporate policy and fire employees who didn’t follow protocol.

Poisoning customers is a legitimate reason to end up in the unemployment line, but what’s good for the little fish is good for the big fish when this Beach is on The Beat. 

Can I get an om?
Picking up the mantra of Chipotle founder and recently ousted CEO Steve Ells, the new burrito big shot, Brian Niccol, chants “zero tolerance” and “retraining” with a rhythmic drone rivaled only by Tony Robbins in a Personal Power infomercial. Niccol, aka the former CEO for Taco Bell, used this week’s test results as an opportunity to repeat the message Chipotle has been chanting since the second half of 2015 when six foodborne illness outbreaks plagued its customers across the country.

“Chipotle has a zero-tolerance policy for any violations of our stringent food safety standards and we are committed to doing all we can to ensure it does not happen again,” Niccol said in a statement released Thursday. “… Chipotle Field Leadership will be retraining all restaurant employees nationwide beginning next week on food safety and wellness protocols.”

Considering how many times Chipotle’s corporate statements have referenced zero-tolerance and retraining in the past three years, Niccol’s statement this week didn’t impress me. Training, protocols and zero-tolerance policies don’t resolve or prevent problems unless they are backed up by adequate funding and staffing. 

So, we’re back to those rank and file burrito makers and their managers at the implicated Powell, OH, Chipotle restaurant.

I figure they all received some level of food safety training. I’d also put pretty good odds on the restaurant having at least one working food thermometer. And, like FSN’s publisher Bill Marler always tells me, “most people try to do the right thing most of the time.” 

But I don’t think the corporate leaders at Chipotle fall into the “most people” category. I think they are part of the “most money” crowd. Same goes for their big investors

Chipotle employees have consistently reported that the chain’s restaurants are under staffed and that managers are under constant pressure from corporate to do more with less. That business model is short-sighted and generally screwed up no matter what goods or services are involved. When food is involved it’s a recipe for disaster.

All of the details of Chipotle’s latest disaster still aren’t known. The specific food that was contaminated hasn’t been identified. The multi-ingredient nature of the made-to-order burritos and “bowls” means a specific food likely won’t be identified. Test results on leftover food are still pending at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And, of course, the actual number of people who were infected will likely never be known. Many people don’t realize they have food poisoning. Doctors and patients alike frequently mistake foodborne illness symptoms for those of so-called flu bugs.

We also don’t know how many more times Chipotle’s customers will ride the merciless merry-go-round of explosive diarrhea and projectile vomiting. 

I wonder if Bill Murray will end up playing both Ells and Niccol when Hollywood cashes in on a fast food burrito version of “Groundhog Day.”   

Chipotle did not respond Friday to my request for comments.

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