It started last July in Seattle, when 5 Chipotle customers reported symptoms of the bacterial infection E. coli.
The following month, 234 people contracted norovirus after eating Chipotle in Simi Valley, California.
Then it was salmonella in Minnesota. 64 infections. 9 hospitalizations.
Then again in Boston. 140 cases of norovirus recorded in December.
In total, over 500 North American Chipotle customers have contracted foodborne illnesses from eating at the chain restaurant since the Seattle outbreak last year.
Of greatest concern from the consumer’s point of view is the absence of any known link between the many outbreaks. Whereas bacterial infections like E. coli and salmonella tend to arise from improperly washed produce, norovirus is spread by infected individuals, most likely Chipotle staff.
In many of the outbreaks, the source of the illnesses is still unknown.
This means that Chipotle’s food safety problem is not limited to a single supplier or a single food preparation practice. The problem originates with management, and its solution will be much more complicated than a single quick fix.
Chipotle has already begun to face consequences for the outbreaks. Sales were down by 14.6% last quarter in stores open more than a year. Chipotle estimates it will lose somewhere between $14 million and $16 million total in lost sales. Last week, the company disclosed that it was served with a grand jury subpoena regarding a criminal investigation into the Simi Valley norovirus outbreak.
In response, Chipotle has partnered with food safety testing company IEH Laboratories in order to effect “changes to our previous protocols” regarding safety testing, staff training and food handling.
Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold announced a temporary shutdown of all North American locations in order to “discuss some of the food safety changes we are implementing, and answer questions from employees.”
Unfortunately, this shutdown will not happen until February 8th, leaving many customers wondering whether the chain is safe to return to until that date.
Only time will tell if the company’s initiatives will have a positive impact on food safety. For the adventurous among us, co-CEO Monty Moran has announced one other change in order to win back customers. Chipotle will now be doubling the number of free burritos and sides offered by its stores.
Sources: Chen, Cathaleen, “Why is Chipotle closing all its stores for a day?” The Christian Science Monitor, 18 January 2016.
“Chipotle will give you more free food to win you back,” AOL, 19 January 2016.
Gross, Rachel E., “Here’s how worried you should really be about eating at Chipotle,” Business Insider, 16 January 2016.