On February 8, all Chipotle stores will close in order for employees to learn how to better safeguard against food safety issues. This is just one step of many being taken after a string of outbreaks affected Chipotle restaurants across the United States in 2015. Three E. coli outbreaks (in Seattle in July, across 9 states in October and November, and in Kansas and Oklahoma in December) sickened more than 50 customers. There were also 2 (unrelated) norovirus outbreaks (in California in August and Boston in December) and a salmonella outbreak in Minnesota from August through September.
In addition to customers being sickened, the impacts to the company have been severe. The outbreaks have resulted in significant negative publicity, reducing Chipotle’s share price by at least 40% and same-store sales by 30% in December. Food from the restaurants impacted by the fall E. coli outbreak was disposed of during voluntary closings, and the company has invested in significant testing and food safety expertise.
E. coli typically sickens restaurant customers who are served food contaminated with E. coli. Food ingredients can enter the supply chain contaminated (such as the 2011 E. coli outbreak due to contaminated sprouts), or be contaminated during preparation, either from contact with a contaminated surface or a person infected with E. coli. While testing hasn’t found any contamination on any surfaces in the affected restaurants or any employees infected with E. coli, it hasn’t been able to find any contaminated food products either. While this is not uncommon (the source for the listeria outbreak that resulted in the recall of ice cream products has not yet been definitively determined), it does require more extensive solutions to ensure that any potential sources of contamination are eliminated.
Performing an investigation with potential, rather than known causes, can still lead to solutions that will reduce the risk of a similar incident recurring. Potential or known causes can be determined with the use of a Cause Map, a visual form of root cause analysis. To create a Cause Map, begin with an impacted goal and ask “Why” questions to determine cause-and-effect relationships. In this case, the safety goal was impacted because people got sick from an E. coli outbreak. A contaminated ingredient was served to customers. This means the ingredient either entered the supply chain contaminated or it was contaminated during preparation, as discussed above. In order for a contaminated ingredient to enter the supply chain, it has to be contaminated with E. coli, and not be tested for E. coli. Testing all raw ingredients isn’t practical.
Chipotle is instituting solutions that will address all potential causes of the outbreak. Weekly and quarterly audits, as well as external assessments will increase oversight. Cilantro will be added to hot rice to decrease the presence of microbes. The all-employee meeting on February 8 will cover food safety, including new sanitation procedures that will be used going forward. The supply chain department is working with suppliers to increase sampling and testing of ingredients. Certain raw ingredients that are difficult to test individually (such as tomatoes) will be washed, diced, and then tested in a centralized prep kitchen and shipped to individual restaurants. Other fresh produce items delivered to restaurants (like onions) will be blanched (submerged in boiling water for 3-5 seconds) for sanitation prior to being prepared.
Chipotle has released a statement describing their efforts: “In the wake of recent food safety-related incidents at a number of Chipotle restaurants, we have taken aggressive actions to implement pioneering food safety practices. We have carefully examined our operations—from the farms that produce our ingredients, to the partners that deliver them to our restaurants, to the cooking techniques used by our restaurant crews—and determined the steps necessary to make the food served at Chipotle as safe as possible.” It is hoped that the actions being implemented will result in the delivery of safe food, with no outbreaks, in 2016.
To view the impacts to the goals, timeline of outbreaks, analysis, and solutions, please click on “Download PDF” above. Or click here to learn more.