Safety in Numbers


Late 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 been reported at the time. The alarming series of outbreaks stemming from the wildly popular Tex-Mex chain began last July with E. coli O157:H7 reported in Washington state, followed by a Salmonella Newport outbreak in Minnesota; norovirus outbreaks in Simi Valley, Calif., and Boston; and the larger, lingering nine-state E. coli O26 outbreak that has not yet been declared officially over by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While tainted produce is the prime suspect behind the gastrointestinal illnesses of 514 people — not including my friend who failed to report becoming ill, not once but twice after eating Chipotle burritos — the root cause of the outbreaks was still undetermined at press time.

Officials from the Denver-based restaurant chain pledge to share all learnings from the 2015 outbreaks at a company-wide meeting of its 60,000 employees on Feb. 8. On the same day, the company will close all of its nearly 2,000 North American restaurants for four hours in tandem with revealing its revamped food safety plans, which “will aim to set the industry’s highest-ever standards of safety,” according to a statement in an open letter penned by Chipotle CEO Steve Ells last December.

Yet for the company that’s long hung its sombrero on trade-marked “Food with Integrity” emanating from its “Responsibly Raised” meats, local and organic produce, and food prepared with classic cooking techniques, it remains to be seen how the fallout will ultimately impact the future of the company.

In the interim, as PG Contributing Editor Jenny McTaggart writes in her “Safety First” feature, which begins on page 118, “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.

Meg Major
[email protected]
Twitter @Meg_Major/@pgrocer

I’m pulling for Chipotle all the way, in hopes that its new protocols will provide further enlightenment for an industry whose fortunes are increasingly tied to fresh produce.

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