by Shannon Dubois
Chipotle is a very popular restaurant, with more than 1,500 locations across the US, Canada, France, Germany, and the UK. Chipotle claims fame for its quick and casual service of touted healthy foods and the catchphrase, “Food with Integrity.” However, in the past six months, Chipotle has been under fire, as many different foodborne illness outbreaks have been reported all across the US.
In August 2015, 64 people became ill when tomatoes served at a Minnesota Chipotle were associated with a salmonella outbreak. In the same month, a norovirus outbreak occurred in California, sickening 235 customers and leading to a civil lawsuit seeking class-action status. The lawsuit claims that the restaurant tried to cover up the incident by disposing of and bleach-cleaning away evidence before the health officials could inspect to determine the source. Allegedly, the restaurant closed for cleaning on August 20 but only notified health officials of the illness on August 21.
Then, in October, an E. coli outbreak affected 52 people in Washington and Oregon. In November, E. coli sickened five people in Kansas, North Dakota, and Oklahoma. The most recent outbreak connected to Chipotle occurred in December, when a host of Boston College students became ill with the classic nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea symptoms of norovirus. The alleged cause of the norovirus outbreaks? Employees continuing to work while ill, thereby spreading the virus on cutting boards, your utensils, the napkin you wipe your mouth with, and beyond.
Foodborne illnesses contracted at restaurants are certainly not unheard of, especially in fast-food chains. For example, a Wendy’s Restaurant was linked to foodborne illness in 2006 and Taco Bell in 2008. Employees may be undertrained and rushed to work as quickly as possible, but the number of outbreaks associated with Chipotle in this short amount of time is alarming. It only takes working in foodservice for even a brief amount of time to know that, while the rulebook may say you technically can call in sick, it may not be the smartest idea if you want to keep your preferred shifts and your job. Also, it’s called fast food—not meticulously hygienic food—so speed is definitely the goal, especially during a lunch or dinner rush.
The question remaining is this: With a similar culture across the board for fast food restaurants, why is Chipotle’s current track record so much worse than other restaurants of similar style and menu? It’s hard to say, but Chipotle suggested that it may be due to their use of fresh produce and meat, instead of frozen. In the wake of these outbreaks and lawsuits, they are pledging to increase food safety measures, such as modifying food testing and altering food preparation.
Will this be enough to save their reputation? Will their newly implemented food safety measures quell these outbreaks? Let’s hope so, but only time will tell.
Shannon Dubois is a second-year Master’s student studying Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition.