Chipotle (which declined to comment for this article) earns big points with customers by playing up its unique supply chain that can oftentimes be traced to local farms. But just because pork or produce is raised nearby doesn’t mean it’s safe, Shaw says. Smaller farms and suppliers may not have access to the same resources as the biggest players, such as the ability to regularly conduct microbiological tests on products.
And a vast network of suppliers makes it operationally challenging for the restaurant company to keep tabs on all the different products coming in from so many places. Plus, any brand that relies heavily on fresh produce has to be cautious of inherent risks because contaminants are not killed off in the cooking process the way they are in meat products.
To safely rely on such a deep roster of suppliers would require aggressive levels of spot testing at farms, warehouses, and restaurants, Shaw says.
“Perception is reality, and people perceive fresh food to be safe food. But that’s not necessarily the case. Fresh means no chemicals, no preservatives, and that the food isn’t processed. And with that comes a certain amount of risk,” she says. “Chipotle receives products from a mass number of suppliers. If you’re receiving food from only a few suppliers, it’s much easier to manage. If you’re receiving food from over 100 suppliers, it’s much more difficult to manage.”
Chipotle first opened in 1993, the same year as one of the nation’s most notorious outbreaks of foodborne illnesses. That year, E. coli struck Jack in the Box customers in the Western U.S., leaving four children dead, dozens with permanent brain and kidney damage, and hundreds more ill.
“That was the year E. coli came down the red carpet,” says Jeff Nelken, a food safety coach. He points to that event as being a turning point for several foodservice companies and how they handled food-safety preparation.
For Chipotle, along with moving some of the food preparation to centralized kitchens, the company has responded to the outbreaks with a number of actions. That included a temporary closure at all its stores on February 8 to train and update employees on progress.
Founder, chairman, and co-CEO Steve Ells committed to spending up to $10 million to help smaller suppliers meet its new safety standards, which include DNA testing of all ingredients before they go to stores. The brand introduced new sanitation procedures for restaurants, including new microbiological kill steps, and announced new incentives for workers tied to food-safety metrics. Then, in March, the company hired James Marsden, a professor from Kansas State University, as food safety “czar.”
Nelken says Chipotle must work to build a culture of food safety that spans from the farm to the store. Suppliers must receive specific instructions that cover everything from fertilizers to transportation and storage of products. And every employee must know and follow strict procedures surrounding sanitation and food handling.
In addition to regular lab tests for ingredients and store audits, he suggests that stores begin sending executives copies of all local health department inspection records, which can serve as valuable red flags for any problems that might be brewing.
“It’s never going to be perfect, because we have human beings involved,” Nelken says. “It’s a business that relies on values, training, supervision, and, of course, cross-checking to make sure you’re monitoring and verifying systems you put into place. It’s almost like constant surveillance.”
Building that culture should be easier now, though. Food safety is a natural fit with Chipotle’s focus on integrity, experts interviewed for this story say. And its recent scares should give everyone from the front line to the C-suite an incentive to implement lasting change.
“There isn’t anyone in the company that doesn’t realize this was a major blunder and can’t happen again. So I think for them, they’ll have a better shot to use this internally as a rallying cry,” says Aaron Allen, CEO of global restaurant consulting firm Aaron Allen & Associates. “I think who is going to have a harder time is the rest of the industry and their staffs.”
With the stresses of running a restaurant, it’s easy to take safety for granted. Allen likens food-safety investments to the fire department—nobody wants to pay for it until catastrophe strikes. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an organization say as a reminder, ‘Our first obligation is food safety,’” Allen says. “I mean, the airlines have that down; they put safety above comfort and all else.”
Aside from training and procedures, restaurants can lean more on technology in the case of a foodborne illness, says Angela Fernandez, vice president of retail grocery and foodservice at GS1 US, the domestic member of the international GS1 standards organization, which decades ago united merchants and suppliers under the Universal Product Code, or UPC.
GS1 is among several groups working to infuse traceability across the food supply chain, allowing restaurants, suppliers, and government regulators to quickly target the culprit in the supply chain during an outbreak. “Should a specific product come into question, I can now pinpoint exactly where that product was sourced from,” she says, “and also the specific lot and batch.”
The Product Traceability Initiative was launched in 2007, a year after the Food and Drug Administration recalled all baby spinach because of an unidentified E. coli outbreak. By scanning crates of lettuce or boxes of meat every step of the way, traceability measures allow restaurants to know what’s in their stores, when it was delivered, where it came from, and who previously handled it—powerful information when trying to work backward and find the source of an illness.
“So when you think about certain restaurants that may go through five cases of diced tomatoes a day, that product is long gone when you come knocking on the door three weeks later,” Fernandez says.
But she says the information is more than just a safety net amid a crisis. With heightened consumer interest in the origin of food products, she says, some participating restaurants are leveraging their traceability efforts, highlighting the sources of their ingredients in their marketing to customers.
“You do have operators who are using this just to power their business system so they have more intelligence about what’s going where and where it came from,” Fernandez says. “You’ve also got some very progressive operators taking all that data they’ve collected and putting it in customers’ hands.”
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