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Chipotle Illnesses: Is Safety the Tradeoff to Locally Sourced Food?

Environment and animal rights groups have praised Chipotle for its sustainable and humane practices, but its recent food poisoning outbreaks illustrate the challenges that can come with living up to this image.

Branded with the tagline “food with integrity,” Chipotle has led the movement among fast-food chains in acquiring produce from local farmers, seeking meat producers who carry out humane animal practices, and reducing its environmental impact. It has used terms like “sustainable,” “added hormone-free,” “organic,” “naturally raised” and “unprocessed” in its marketing materials.  

But food safety experts say these campaign have shifted the company’s focus away from microbial safety, and that these very choices contribute to making it more difficult to guarantee the food won’t become infected with germs that can make customers sick with diarrhea and vomiting for days.

“If you want to make products fresh, that means you’re not going to use a preservative or it’s going to be unprocessed,” says Jayson Lusk, president-elect for the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, who has been critical of Chipotle’s marketing practices. “It does provide a real tradeoff in terms of providing a safe product for the consumer.”

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E. coli outbreaks linked to food from Chipotle has been reported in nine states, infecting 52 people, though officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention haven’t identified what ingredient is responsible. The chain, well-known for its burritos, uses 64 ingredients from more than 100 suppliers at its 1,900 restaurants.

In an effort to reduce its carbon footprint, Chipotle increasingly has used more produce from local suppliers. In 2012, it bought 10 million pounds of locally grown produce, and bought an additional 5 million pounds each year, setting a goal of 25 million pounds by 2015, according to a review of company press releases and an email from Chris Arnold, Chipotle’s spokesman.

“If you are sourcing foods from one or two suppliers it’s easier to manage than if you have dozens of medium or smaller suppliers,” says Don Schaffner, a food science expert and professor at Rutgers University. “They may not have the resources to do food safety.”

Chipotle hasn’t identified the source of latest E. coli infection. Arnold said in an email that “in all probability, [the contamination] was not something that came from a local supplier given the geographic nature of the incident.”

But Steve Ells, Chipotle’s chairman, founder and co-CEO, said Tuesday that the company is investing heavily in food safety with new protocols, specifically citing testing of fresh produce. “There will be robust testing procedures that will need to be in place for all of our suppliers, whether large or small,” he said in a presentation in New York. “Some of the smaller suppliers might have a hard time implementing these robust testing procedures initially. We’ll help them. Not all will be on board, for sure, but we think most will.”

Chipotle has in its 2013 and 2014 annual reports acknowledged the challenges presented by the choices it makes to deliver food that hasn’t been frozen and that is prepared to order. In 2008 – the same year the company started its local produce program – the company began to point to isolated instances of food poisoning, but prior to that its annual reports focused on general references to foodborne illness, which they said could come from fears consumers have about threats that occur outside the company’s jurisdiction, such as globals fears of bird flu or mad cow disease.

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But Schaffner points out that Chipotle’s challenges aren’t much different from what most restaurant chains face – even McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s serve salads that require fresh fruits and vegetables.  “All of the chains have the same problem: That they have to buy fresh produce,” he says. “And the nature of fresh produce is that it’s grown outside and can become contaminated.” At a farm, a field can become infected after flooding or if animals defecate in it.

But food contamination can occur at any point, whether while being transported, during preparation in a restaurant or when a consumer has taken the food home.

“Food safety is complicated,” Schaffner says. “If it wasn’t complicated everyone would do it and we wouldn’t have any problems.” Though the U.S. has made dramatic improvements in food safety, each year, one in six Americans get sick from foodborne illness, 3,000 of whom die.

When it comes to produce, inspectors can’t tell just by looking at it whether it’s contaminated. Testing a lettuce head for safety, for instance, makes it impossible to eat. A single item may test negative even when a batch is infected, or vice versa.

Lusk says his research has shown that the increase in demand for all-natural, so-called “clean” food, is a “real challenge to food safety.”

“We tend to have this idea that small is clean and safe – it could be true but it’s not necessarily true,” Lusk says. “You’ll have more food waste and it will be more expensive, and your food safety is more of a challenge. … It’s just a trade off they make.”

Marc Bellemare, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, has conducted research that suggests an increase in the number of farmers markets is associated with an increase in foodborne illness in that location.

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Bellemare cautions, however, that the research doesn’t necessarily show that the food is less safe, and he says one of his theories is that people are mishandling the food, whether leaving meat on the counter too long or leaving produce in the car sitting in the sun for several hours. “They may have an implicit bias that the food might be better, and may think they don’t have to wash it as thoroughly,” he says.

Chipotle’s focus on genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, as what critics have called a marketing scare tactic, have concerned food safety experts. GMOs are foods whose genes have been changed to help them become more resistant to bad weather or insects. So far, GMOs have not shown evidence of health risks in humans, but they are one of the most debated topics in agriculture.

“That’s the disconnect of Chipotle: They want to be seen as a super healthy company but they are asleep at the switch when it comes to microbial food safety,” Schaffner says.

He adds that while consumers say they are concerned about GMOs or hormones, neither has anything to do with food safety.

Chipotle has seen several infections in recent months. In July, E. coli infected five people in Washington, though it wasn’t reported by local authorities. In August, norovirus sickened nearly 100 people at a Chipotle in Simi Valley, California, and in September, salmonella linked to tomatoes infected dozens of people in Minnesota.

In response, Chipotle has begun dicing tomatoes in a commissary, putting them through a “sanitary kill step” to eliminate germs, and hermetically sealing them for delivery to restaurants. Similar procedures have been implemented for cilantro and lettuce, which are at higher risk for infection because they’re not cooked, and the heat from cooking can kill some germs.

“It provides additional challenge, but you can do it,” Benjamin Chapman, associate professor and food safety specialist in the Department of Youth, Family and Community Sciences at North Carolina State University, says of ensuring food safety working with a large number of suppliers.

The most recent case of food poisoning linked to Chipotle occurred at Boston College, where the university has reported at least 140 students show symptoms of norovirus, the most common type of foodborne illness. The ingredient that caused the illness hasn’t been confirmed, and it’s possible that someone carrying the infection entered Chipotle.

Chapman cautions about making links between local farmers and higher probabilities of food poisoning. “There’s not really enough data or details,” he says. “It absolutely could be a factor but we don’t know the product.”

Though he says Chipotle needs to provide more details on its recently stated plan to be a leader in food safety moving forward, he thinks he can be done.

“They’ve spent a lot of time on their provider verification, so they should be able to do the same with microbial food safety,” Chapman says.

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