It has been a difficult year for Chipotle. The burrito chain's obsession with serving high-quality, fresh ingredients — one of its fundamental marketing strategies — has ended up causing it one headache after the other.
Just as Chipotle recovered from a months-long carnitas shortage – the chain pulled pork off menus when a supplier failed to follow animal welfare standards – it was soon linked to three cases of foodborne illness: a norovirus outbreak in Simi Valley, California in August, cases of salmonella in Minnesota traced back to tomatoes shortly after, and – just last week – E. coli in the Pacific Northwest. The chain's 43 restaurants in Washington and Oregon have been closed since Friday.
"Having three outbreaks over the course of two to three months is highly unusual," food poisoning attorney Bill Marler told BuzzFeed News. "I think corporate leadership needs to step back at look at their food safety culture."
Chipotle does have vulnerabilities. In its discussion of risks to its business in its most recent annual report, the company warned: "We may be at a higher risk for food-borne illness outbreaks than some competitors due to our use of fresh produce and meats rather than frozen, and our reliance on employees cooking with traditional methods rather than automation."
In other words, the chain's biggest strengths can also become big-time weaknesses.
Few answers were available by Wednesday about the 35 people sick with E. coli linked to eating at possibly eight Chipotle restaurants in Washington and Oregon. The source of the contamination might have been produce, although it was still not clear as health officials continued their investigation. "We are not going to speculate about what may have caused this while the investigation is ongoing," Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said in an email.
It is facing lawsuits from sickened customers, two in Minnesota and one in Washington.
Is something wrong at Chipotle?
Chipotle is certainly not the only chain to experience such problems. The strain of bacteria affecting Chipotle's Northwest stores now, E. coli O26, previously had been tied to raw clover sprouts at Jimmy John's Restaurants in 2012.
In recent years, the number of foodborne outbreaks traced back to fast food restaurants has increased, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Still, the recent string of events at Chipotle raises questions about whether there are shortcomings in its food safety practices or supply chain, or whether it has simply been the victim of some serious bad luck. The chain was also connected to a norovirus outbreak in 2008 that sickened 450 people.
Chipotle has hired two food safety consulting firms to assess its standards and has been commended for taking broad action by closing restaurants in the area and cooperating with the investigation.
For now, it is conducting environmental testing in Washington and Oregon restaurants, and is working with consultants to assess and improve its food safety standards systemwide. "We are just beginning this work [with the consulting firms] and aren’t going to speculate about outcomes of that effort," said Arnold