Skip to main content

Chipotle's Next Chapter Promises to Be a Page-Turner


"I ate at Chipotle last night. I hope I don’t die.”

I certainly won’t forget any time soon those two jarringly succinct sentences, which erupted like a bottle rocket in my ear from a panic-stricken friend who called me last fall seeking advice amid an escalating foodborne outbreak at Chipotle Mexican Grill.

While she clearly had me confused with an expert, I was nevertheless cautiously optimistic when conveying my guarded belief that she would live to tell the tale — if only because no known deaths had yet been reported during the peak of an alarming series of foodborne illnesses that plagued multiple Chipotle customers across the country beginning last July and continuing through early winter.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finally declared the E. coli outbreak officially over earlier this month. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how the fallout will ultimately impact the future of the company that’s long hung its sombrero on trademarked “Food with Integrity” emanating from its “Responsibly Raised” meats, local and organic produce, and food prepared with classic cooking techniques.

Nevertheless, Chipotle is staying the course with a pledge to set the industry’s "highest-ever standards of safety" with the creation of a $10 million Local Grower Support Initiative to help educate, train and support its small- and mid-size farmer-partners, details of which can be found in PG's earlier coverage, "Chipotle's Road to Recovery Rooted in $10M Local Grower Initiative."

As PG Contributing Editor Jenny McTaggart writes in her “Safety First” feature in our February issue, “All players in the restaurant industry are taking an even closer look at food safety, with the aim of preventing such disasters. Many of their concerns mirror those in the retail trade: Consumers continue to desire fresher and locally sourced ingredients, while the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) raises new concerns about traceability.”

To be sure, with FSMA at long last the official law of the land since November, the trinity of supply chain management, traceability and food safety issues are top of mind at present for many trading partners. However, despite a recent barrage of unflattering headlines, Tom Stenzel, president/CEO of Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, is among the industry experts who believe that our nation’s food supply is far safer now than previously, when similar problems went undetected.

“FSMA is prevention-focused, but we cannot expect it to entirely eliminate an occasional incident,” says Stenzel, “but we will now be able to more quickly identify it, pull it and communicate with the public what they need to know.”

Stenzel continues: “Our conversation with consumers has to put the extremely low risk of foodborne illness in perspective — not promise that billions and billions of servings of food every day can be 100 percent safe, 100 percent of the time. As an industry, our commitment focuses on using the very best science, the most innovative technologies and the most rigorous safety systems to prevent any contamination to the best of our ability.”

While science also enables us to detect illnesses far more frequently than ever, Stenzel says one issue not open for debate is the mandate for all food industry partners to “work toward reducing risks anywhere in the food chain, while also understanding that the best efforts of government, academia and industry cannot prevent 100 percent of foodborne outbreaks. When they do tragically occur, they should be triggers for learning to continually enhance safety, rather than being the cause of panic because we implied that a one-in-a-billion or one-in-a-trillion event could never occur.”

As for what comes next for the embattled Chipotle — whose uphill crusade to win back its once-fanatical customer base promises to be supremely steep — time, as always, will tell. But I’m pulling for it all the way, in hopes that its new protocols will provide further enlightenment and instruction for an industry whose fortunes are increasingly tied to fresh produce.

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds