If it Can Happen to Chipotle, It Can Happen to You.

If it Can Happen to Chipotle, It Can Happen to You.

Originally published in the December issue of Total Food Service Magazine.

If you work in the food service industry, you’re likely aware that fast casual chain, Chipotle, has experienced three foodborne illness outbreaks in the past three months. Since August, there have been reports of Norovirus, Salmonella, and E.coli – 3 of the “BIG 6” reportable foodborne illnesses.

This has been a real crisis for Chipotle. Including all three outbreaks, 44 restaurants were closed in three states, and hundreds of people became ill. To recover from just one food poisoning incident is challenging enough – many brands never do – but to recover from three incidents will be even more difficult.

Remember Chi-Chi’s? Chi-Chi’s was named “America’s Favorite Mexican Restaurant” eight years in a row. However, one of the worst Hepatitis A outbreaks to ever take place in the U.S. food service industry occurred at a Chi-Chi’s in the Pittsburgh, PA area, where four people died and 660 people contracted the virus in 2003. The incident was eventually traced to green onions at the Chi-Chi’s at Beaver Valley Mall in Monaca, PA. Not even a year later, Chi-Chi’s closed its doors. Thankfully, there haven’t been any deaths in the Chipotle outbreak, but three outbreaks in as many months means rebuilding brand confidence is going to be very challenging.

If you’re in the food service industry, it’s time for you to pause and seriously think about your business. Every organization must create policies and procedures, and also make certain that they are being followed. All of the knowledge in the world doesn’t do a bit of good if it’s not applied.

We have an obligation to our guests to be certain that the products we’re serving are purchased from reputable suppliers. Whether you’re buying these products from a national corporation or have made the decision to support local farmers, the food MUST be safe. What policies do you have in place to be certain that your suppliers are providing you with the safest products possible? I can assure you Chipotle absolutely has strong food safety policies and procedures in place, and their corporate office carefully researches their suppliers. After all, their slogan is “food with integrity”.

How do you reduce the risks of making your guests ill?

  • Purchase from approved reputable suppliers.
  • Require your suppliers to have HACCP (Hazzard Analysis and Critical Control Point) plans. Obtain copies of their documentation for your records.
  • Require all management personnel to obtain a Food Manager’s Certification.
  • Make certain that everyone on your staff washes their hands appropriately, with soap and hot water, using single-use towels to dry them.
  • Keep hot food hot and cold food cold or don’t keep it.
  • Food thermometers must be easily accessible – not locked in the office – and should be used to monitor the temperature of food.
  • Food thermometers should be calibrated daily at a minimum; I recommend once a shift (and when they are new, prior to their initial use and also if they are dropped).
  • Take the temperatures of products upon delivery. If food products are unsafe when they arrive, there is nothing you can do to make them safe later.
  • TRAIN, TRAIN, TRAIN and TRAIN some more. When you have well-trained staff, there’s a much higher chance that they’ll properly prepare the food, which will make your establishment safer and more profitable. This will also lower your risks for liability, a ruined reputation and other negative fall-out from a foodborne illness incident.

These foodborne illnesses have caused Chipotle’s stock to plunge – only a few days after their biggest gain in four years. And, of course, its reputation has taken a nosedive, as well, thanks to ongoing negative media stories, which have been running nationwide. How did this happen to such a reputable company, one who was has grown at a remarkable pace over the past several years? Obviously something is awry.

If multiple foodborne illness incidents can happen to a national brand as reputable as Chipotle, with plentiful resources at their fingertips, it can happen to you, too. The risks are real in every kitchen, regardless of genre. One mistake and your reputation – and your livelihood – could be over forever. Remember, foodborne illnesses are 100% preventable, so prevent them from happening in your restaurant!