National Consumers League

Chipotle's misdirected food safety efforts

92_chipotle_stock_photo.jpgBy Ali Schklair, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow 

Back in August, Chipotle launched its ‘G-M-Over it’ campaign. In the name of food safety, it pledged to eliminate all genetically modified ingredients from its food supply. But the hype didn’t last long. By September, Chipotle was facing a class-action lawsuit challenging the validity of their GMO ban. Plaintiffs argued that the meat and dairy products served at the chain come from animals that feed on GMO corn and soy, not to mention the corn syrup used in Chipotle’s juices and soft drinks. 

Fast-forward to December, and Chipotle was being linked to numerous foodborne illness outbreaks. Over a six-month period, 500 people were sickened and 20 were hospitalized from norovirus, salmonella, or one of two different strains of E. coli. 2016 isn’t looking much better for Chipotle. A federal grand jury has served the company with a subpoena asking for documents relating to the norovirus outbreak at a Simi Valley, CA location. At this point, it is safe to say that Chipotle has greatly misdirected its food safety efforts.

Outbreaks at restaurants are serious. In 1993 an E. Coli outbreak at the fast food restaurant Jack In The Box infected 732 people. The bacterium originated from undercooked beef patties in hamburgers. The outbreak involved 73 Jack In The Box restaurants in CaliforniaIdahoWashington, and Nevada and has been described as "far and away the most infamous food poison outbreak in contemporary history.” Four children died, and 178 other victims were left with permanent injury, including kidney and brain damage. The FDA implemented new guidelines and regulations after the Jack In The Box tragedy, including setting temperatures for cooking beef to destroy pathogens.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that approximately 48 million Americans are infected by foodborne diseases each year. Consumers are twice as likely to get sick from food prepared at a restaurant. Since pathogens can grow and spread anywhere throughout the supply chain, it’s often hard to track the source of an outbreak. When restaurants have multiple supply sources, as does Chipotle, it is even harder to identify the origin. As discussed in a recent New Yorker article, “while Chipotle has said that it is introducing more stringent testing and reassessing its food-handling practices, its reliance on local suppliers means that the task of insuring the integrity of its supply chain will be harder.” Not only will Chipotle have to revamp its food safety protocols, but it may also need to reconsider its entire local sourcing model—something that is a draw for many devoted Chipotle customers.

Where does that leave consumers who eat out? The CDC suggests taking these four precautionary steps when picking a restaurant or dining out:

  1. Check inspection scores. Search online to see how the restaurant scored on their state health department health inspection.
  2. Make sure the restaurant is clean. Look around to see how used plates and utensils are handled. If you can see it, notice how food is being prepared and how cooking spaces are cleaned.
  3. Check that your food is cooked properly. Look at your meat to determine whether it is cooked thoroughly, and send it back if it appears too pink or raw in texture.
  4. Handle your leftovers properly. Refrigerate leftovers no more than an hour after leaving the restaurant. Eat leftovers within 3 to 4 days, and discard if you see signs of deterioration – like mold or a bad smell or texture - on leftovers.

 The CDC and Food Safety News offer plenty more helpful information about avoiding food borne illness.