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Why We Should Hope Chipotle Succeeds Despite All Their Food Safety Issues

It’s hard for me to hate on Chipotle too much, to be perfectly honest. I have major respect for what the company has been trying to do in the world of fast food, as their mantra of fresh ingredients, built-to-order, and healthier options is something that the entire industry should move to. If they could just move past their food safety scandals, they would be the gold standard of what all of fast food should be.

No fast food chain has been beleaguered with food poisoning issues as much as Chipotle in recent years. They’ve gotten hundreds of people sick across multiple foodborne illness outbreaks. When they tried to correct the issue with retraining, the food safety mishaps continued.

Now, they’ve recently experienced their worst food poisoning fiasco of all time, almost right after they had brought in a new CEO and were looking to turn things around. It goes without saying, but Chipotle just can’t seem to catch a break with all of the scandal that has been linked to them.

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Still, Chipotle deserves more credit than the general public has been giving them. Yes, they  can’t keep a clean streak for more than a few months, but it’s because what they’re doing has been pushing the envelope in the fast food industry for nearly a decade.

Achieving the scale they have makes it a challenge to control food safety with even just processed ingredients on their own. Now imagine taking that same model and implementing it into a vast lineup of fresh ingredients and a restaurant chain where everything is made in-house. This includes cutting the vegetables, marinating the meats, shredding cheese, and making fresh batches of guac daily.

All of those fresh ingredients mean that a significant amount of prep is required, which opens up the chain to more food poisoning possibilities. If someone isn’t properly trained or deviates from a food safety plan, it opens up the gateway for people to get sick.

It’s impossible to be 100% perfect with food safety, even with Chipotle’s strict food handling procedures and quarterly retrainings (a new requirement for employees). Food contamination can start on the field, long before Chipotle has a chance to get its hands on it. Despite all of the technology the food industry has, it’s not possible to catch every pathogen before it gets to the consumer. This is especially true for fresh produce, where science has yet to figure out how to effectively kill bacteria without drastically altering food quality.

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And though it would seem outlandish to even surmise, some conspiracy theorists believe that Chipotle’s food safety issues could also potentially not be the company’s fault. These same individuals believe there may be a hidden force attempting to sabotage Chipotle. Theories of corporate influence have been floating around since 2015, suggesting that shareholders may have something to do with the poisonings so that they can profit via short stocks.

Some customers also believed that one outbreak could have been the work of Monsanto after Chipotle announced they would stop using GMOs. That particular scenario involved a “very rare” strain of E. Coli, according to the FDA, which led people to believe that Monsanto could have paid someone to target Chipotle in retaliation. To date, it’s never been proven if that was or wasn’t the case.

If these conspiracy theories are in fact true, it would mean that somebody had to have intentionally poisoned the food at multiple locations, which isn’t an out-of-the-question scenario. Folks have spiked food with toxins or bacteria in the past, including at grocery stores and in the salad bars of restaurants.

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I’m not suggesting that Chipotle is free of any fault when it comes to their food poisoning issues. Rather, they should still be held responsible because these illnesses still happened to their customers under their watch. Thus it’s imperative they still ramp up to stringent measures with their food handling programs and continually hold themselves accountable for what’s been going on.

Chipotle’s concerted and continued efforts to handle its food safety problems while persisting to be a cutting-edge model of what fast food should be still serves as an example to others in the industry. Their take on fresh ingredients, handmade products, and affordable pricing at that level of quality is commendable, and something we should be supporting despite the food poisonings.

No fast food chain has ever been willing to take on the same freshness and quality model Chipotle started out with and scale it to the size of a mega-corporation. The burrito giant took on the guinea pig role in testing out what we all want fast food to really be: fresh, fast, affordable, and tasty. Outside of the lingering safety issues (and their forgettable first run of queso), Chipotle has managed to do all of that.

Minus the food-borne illnesses, Chipotle is what the rest of fast food should be. As they work out the kinks in their food handling programs, we should continue to support them and allow them to become the gold standard the rest of the industry aspires to be. Only then can we possibly have a future of food that’s wholesome, nutritious, and delicious, even at its most basic level.

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Chipotle’s Latest Food Poisoning Outbreak Is Its Worst One Yet

Chipotle has a lengthy history with food poisonings that date all the way back to 2008. Nearly a decade since that first incident, the company’s most recent outbreak is the worst to ever hit the fresh burrito chain.

Since July 26, over 700 cases of reported illnesses have been linked to a single Chipotle location, according to the Dayton Daily News. The store, located in Powell, OH, was closed immediately upon reports of a potential outbreak. They then enabled the chain’s food safety protocol before reopening, which included changing out the food and deep cleaning the entire place.

It’s still unknown what bacteria or pathogen caused the outbreak, and the source of it hasn’t been determined either. What we do know, though, is that no other outbreak connected to Chipotle has poisoned as many customers in a single instant.

The only other food poisoning outburst that came close, was all the way back in 2008, when over 400 customers contracted a strain of norovirus at a location near Kent State University. Coincidentally, that event also took place at a Chipotle restaurant in Ohio, although there’s likely no connection between the two given the time and changes the chain has implemented since then.

Still, an outbreak as massive as the one going on right now does call Chipotle’s new food safety protocol into question. To be fair, this is only the second massive food poisoning to occur since the new changes to their program came in late 2016. Still, more than 700 people getting sick from one single location is quite alarming.

Local health officials are still trying to determine the cause and source of the outbreak, but so far, common candidates like norovirus, Salmonella, and E. Coli have already been ruled out.

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Shady Chipotle Food Safety Practices May Have Caused The Most Recent Norovirus Outbreak

Photo: Inazakira on Flickr

Last week’s norovirus outbreak at a Chipotle restaurant that poisoned 135 people could have been the result of some poor enforcement of the burrito franchise’s sick day policy.

CNBC reports that Chipotle did confirm in an earnings call that the outbreak was linked back to an ill burrito artist, indicating a potential relaxing of their sick day policy by some managers within the company.

Chipotle was one of the first major fast food brands to offer fully paid sick day leave to its staff, even incorporating a disease screening into their Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) strategy. However, according to Chipotle CEO Steve Ells, a “thorough investigation” of last week’s food poisoning occurrence “revealed that our leadership there didn’t strictly adhere to our company protocols.”

CNBC also received e-mails from Chipotle employees that suggested this was a problem occurring in more than just one place. One staffer showed up to work while nauseous, but management said they would have to stay unless they found someone to replace them. Another employee, who goes by the name uglydarby on Reddit, wrote a lengthy post expressing concern over being forced to work while having a cold and fever.

Being forced to work while sick from Chipotle

Other users have also revealed other shortcuts taken by Chipotle managers, including falsifying food safety sheets and not blanching produce like avocados and citrus to kill bacteria before using it for guacamole, salsas, and other purposes. Food safety sheets are required to be accurately filled as part of a HACCP plan, and blanching is likely a major critical control point for several bacteria in Chipotle’s new food safety system.

While none of these events were reported at the actual restaurant where the outbreak occurred, based on this trend, it’s very possible that the Virginia restaurant where norovirus was found was engaging in at least some of the same practices other managers have allegedly been partaking in.

If Chipotle’s managers continue to cheat the system through these methods, it’s likely their food safety issues will continue to fester and appear throughout the chain. Unless Chipotle forces stricter enforcement of their food safety policies and HACCP plan, expect more food poisoning outbreaks to occur in the near future.

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Chipotle’s Latest Food Poisoning Outbreak Leaves A Devastating Blow

Just when everything started to look up for Chipotle, this happens.

A location in Sterling, Virginia was closed after multiple reports were posted to the crowdsourced food poisoning reporting site iwaspoisoned.com. Eight different reports were filed against the restaurant detailing 13 illnesses and at least two hospitalizations.

Jim Marsden, Chipotle’s executive director of food safety, told Business Insider that they were aware of the outbreak, had notified local health officials, and “are working with health authorities to understand what the cause may be and to resolve the situation as quickly as possible.” While many pathogens and microbes that cause food poisoning have similar symptoms, Marsden did suggest that norovirus was the causative agent for the reported illnesses.

“The reported symptoms are consistent with norovirus. Norovirus does not come from our food supply, and it is safe to eat at Chipotle.”

Norovirus causes symptoms like projectile vomiting, extreme stomach cramps, dehydration, and diarrhea. These develop within 12-48 hours of ingesting the virus, but those who get sick typically recover within 1-3 days. Outbreaks are typically caused by improper sanitary practices from food handlers, such as an employee not washing their hands properly after using the bathroom.

This isn’t the first time Chipotle’s had to deal with the nasty pathogen, as outbreaks involving norovirus have also occurred over the past couple of years that led to some serious backlash.

Regarding this particular outbreak, the restaurant affected has been closed and will reopen after a full sanitation cleanup. The financial impact this will have on Chipotle, however, is just starting to rear its ugly head.

Chipotle’s stock has already plummeted over $26 a share today (a staggering 6.4% drop) due to reports of the outbreaks spreading like wildfire. It’s unknown exactly how much more it will drop, but for a brand that was winning back customers and starting to gain footing again, this is a devastating blow.