CDC Says Chipotle E. Coli Outbreak Is All Clear
DENVER — The food illness outbreak that plagued Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. through the second half of last year appears to be over, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC officially closed its investigation into the E. coli illness that struck 60 customers of the Denver-based chain. However, the source of the illness remains a mystery, according to The Associated Press.
Chipotle executives say they may never be able to identify what made people sick. In response to the illness that hit 14 states, the company aggressively revamped its food preparation method at all 1,900-plus locations.
"We are pleased that the CDC has concluded its investigation, and we have offered our full cooperation throughout," the company said in a statement, adding that it's confident the changes in its preparation methods mean all its food is "delicious and safe."
The Chipotle episode began last summer when the chain was tied to foodborne illnesses in California and Minnesota, although those cases didn't get as much attention. At the end of October, E. coli cases were reported in Oregon and Washington, prompting the company to shut down 43 restaurants in those states.
Then, an unrelated norovirus outbreak sickened dozens of students at Boston College. And in December, the CDC reported five more cases of E. coli the previous month linked to Chipotle, which it said might be part of a different outbreak.
The Impact on Business
The chain's food safety issue drove its stock down — which is back up in the wake of the CDC's announcement this week — and led to a decline in customer visits. However, according to market research firm The NPD Group, Chipotle's strong base of teen and young adult customers continued to show their support.
In the quarter ending in December, total visits to Chipotle were down 5 percent compared to a 19-percent traffic gain the same quarter a year ago. Teens and young adults, however, increased their visits to the Mexican-style fast-casual chain by double digits last year, according to NPD's ongoing foodservice market research.
"Young adults represent the largest share of Chipotle's overall traffic," said Bonnie Riggs, NPD's restaurant industry analyst. "Their willingness to overlook any food safety concerns to eat at Chipotle could be a result of unabashed loyalty or lack of awareness."
NPD continually tracks U.S. consumers' awareness and concern about food safety outbreaks and often sees heightened awareness and concern of an outbreak corresponds with heavy news coverage of the incident. After the news cycle quiets down, awareness and concern of the outbreak declines. Based on this pattern, if consumers aren't exposed to news about a food safety outbreak, they have little awareness or concern.
Based on an analysis using NPD's receipt harvesting service, Checkout Tracking, no particular quick-service restaurant or fast-casual outlet was the clear winner of Chipotle's lost traffic. Chains with the most units, like Burger King and McDonald's, took the opportunity to attract the most former Chipotle customers. Chick-fil-A and Wendy's also won over former Chipotle customers.
"What our research tells us is that Chipotle has a strong loyal base from which to build its business back up relatively quickly," Riggs said. "To win back the trust of their former customers, Chipotle will need to continually communicate all of the ways in which they are preventing any future outbreaks and prove to them that are they able to deliver on their 'food with integrity' promise."
Chipotle will host a national employee meeting on Feb. 8 to thank employees for their work implementing Chipotle's comprehensive new food safety programs in their restaurants, as well as outlining for all employees the steps that have been taken outside the restaurants to make Chipotle ingredients safer than ever.
According to the company, Chipotle's "enhanced food safety program is the product of a comprehensive reassessment of its food safety practices conducted with industry-leading experts that included a farm-to-fork assessment of each ingredient Chipotle uses with an eye toward establishing the highest standards for safety."
The program's many components include:
- High-resolution DNA-based testing of many ingredients designed to ensure the quality and safety of ingredients before they are shipped to restaurants.
- Changes to food prep and food-handling practices, including washing and cutting of some produce items (such as tomatoes and romaine lettuce) and shredding cheese in central kitchens, blanching of some produce items (including avocados, onions and limes) in its restaurants, and new protocols for marinating chicken and steak.
- Enhanced internal training to ensure all employees thoroughly understand the company's high standards for food safety and food handling.
- Paid sick leave helping to ensure that ill employees have no incentive to work while ill.
The meeting will be broadcast live from Denver to hundreds of locations across the country. In order to allow all employees to attend, the company will be closing its restaurants for lunch that day. The restaurants will reopen nationally at 3 p.m.
Chipotle started with one restaurant in 1993 and operates more than 1,900 locations today, including 17 Chipotle restaurants outside the United States and 11 ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen restaurants. It also is an investor in an entity that owns and operates three Pizzeria Locale restaurants.