Chipotle's Food-Safety Woes? Don't Expect Sympathy From Rest Of Industry

Feb 13, 2016
Originally published on February 16, 2016 3:37 pm

Chipotle Mexican Grill certainly is not the first company to face lawsuits and subpoenas because its food made people sick. Other companies, in fact, have faced far worse: Companies like Blue Bell, Dole and Earthbound Farms have been linked to disease outbreaks that actually killed people.

But it's difficult to think of another case in which a company's food-safety troubles provoked such schadenfreude in the food industry. The company, it seems, made a lot of enemies while marketing its "food with integrity."

Leading the anti-Chipotle charge is Henry Miller, a former official with the Food and Drug Administration and longtime advocate of the benefits of genetically engineered food, which Chipotle has rejected. "Chipotle is a company so out of control and negligent that it repeatedly endangers the public," he wrote in a column for Forbes. "The source of the company's woes is a marketing-driven propensity to exploit current food fads, even if it diverts the corporate focus away from what should always be 'job one' — safety."

The conservative Independent Women's Forum, which frequently opposes what it sees as overregulation of business, applauded the FDA's investigation of Chipotle. The director of the IWF's Culture of Alarmism Project, Julie Gunlock, wrote that "Chipotle needs to rethink its business practices, which include working alongside food alarmists, anti-GMO activists, the organic food industry, and other modern food system critics to frighten, distract and misinform the American public."

Chipotle became such a punch line for jokes that Hannah Thompson, a writer for the meat industry publication Meatingplace, decided that the chain deserved some sympathy. Thompson has, in the past, criticized opponents of the meat industry for "bullying" tactics. "I hate to see our industry using similar tactics," she wrote. "It's essential that we take the high road — even when we're tempted to do otherwise."

The trade publication Beef Daily, meanwhile, sounded a cautious yet appreciative note. "While Chipotle licks its wounds, the beef industry has been presented with an interesting opportunity to educate consumers about the safety and nutrition of conventionally-raised meat," it wrote.

Chipotle is fighting back, of course. It has unveiled a new food-safety program that involves stepped-up testing for bacteria that cause disease and new restaurant procedures to keep such bacteria from contaminating raw ingredients like tomatoes and limes.

It is also preparing a new marketing campaign to convince consumers that it is, indeed, a safe place to eat.

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Still reeling from an outbreak of foodborne illnesses, Chipotle Mexican Grill is aggressively taking measures to improve food safety and win back their customers. This week, the company announced a new food safety program. In fact, Chipotle's founder has vowed a mighty, if ungrammatical, vow that it will be the safest place in America to eat at. Here to talk about this and what it means is NPR's food correspondent Dan Charles.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: So nice to be here.

WERTHEIMER: Now, we've had news this week that Chipotle is spending millions on its new program, including using what they call sophisticated DNA testing. What would DNA testing due to keep food safe?

CHARLES: Well, these modern tests, they look for specific DNA sequences of the bad bugs that make you sick, things like particular kinds of E. coli and salmonella and listeria. So when they detect that, then obviously you know you have a problem. This sounds a little bit more impressive than it actually is because you can't test everything, and contaminated food can still slip through. The idea is if you test enough, if there's a big problem, you may be able to catch it and trace it back to its source and fix it.

WERTHEIMER: They've also announced some relatively low-tech ways to protect customers, things that they might do in their stores that some home cooks do.

CHARLES: Right, yeah, simple things like dunking your lemons, limes, avocados, onions in boiling water for five seconds and blanching it to kill bacteria that might be on the surface. Also, an interesting thing I hadn't thought about - they will marinate the meat, the chicken and the steak, at the very end of the day after all the food handling is done. If they're handling the meat and the meat is contaminated, it won't spread to other food in the restaurant hopefully.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Chipotle likes to brag about how everything is raised or grown locally and that the food they serve is cooked in the house. In fact, they had staff wearing T-shirts that say I made the guac. So does that change?

CHARLES: It will change. For instance, the tomatoes will not be chopped in the restaurant anymore. They'll be chopped at some centralized facility and also tested at that point and then bagged and sent to the restaurant. So the testing allows you perhaps to catch a problem. It also means fewer people handling the product. But, you know, it's a trade-off. Presumably it'll be a little less fresh when it gets to the restaurant.

WERTHEIMER: Now, some in the mainstream food industry have suggested that Chipotle's problems have been caused by their much vaunted decision to buy from local producers, small-scale farmers. Are locally sourced ingredients less safe than big corporate farm produced ingredients?

CHARLES: There is very little evidence to argue this one way or the other. So people are arguing from assumptions, and some people say, yeah, small producers, they don't have the expertise. They don't have the resources to have, like, a full-time food safety person on staff. They may not have the resources to do as much testing of the irrigation water for instance. On the other hand, the small producers will say, we take personal care. We're there. We're more on top of things. You can argue it either way, but you can't convince anybody.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) Now, I do get the impression that Chipotle's problems have gotten a lot of attention in part because it's been such a success up to this point.

CHARLES: That's right, and Chipotle really invited the attention. It said, in many places, we are better than the mainstream food industry. So now, the other side, you know, the big food companies, defenders of genetically modified organisms, for instance, they are quite evidently happy to see Chipotle's problems. And now Chipotle, they're going to be spending a lot of money on food safety but actually also on PR trying to rebuild their reputation.

WERTHEIMER: Dan Charles is NPR's food correspondent. Thanks very much.

CHARLES: Nice to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.