Since the foodborne illness outbreak of late 2015 that included 55 cases of E. coli O26 across 11 states followed by the discovery of norovirus at a Boston-based restaurant that reportedly sickened 80 customers, officials with Chipotle Mexican Grill have taken aggressive steps to rebuild its image and bolster its food safety practices.
One of the first and most meaningful reactions was hiring food safety guru Jim Marsden, Ph.D. as its executive director of food safety, who teamed with Dale Dexter, Ph.D., manager of food safety programs, to implement a new system of food safety interventions and supplier requirements. Dexter, who was hired about 17 months ago in the wake of the debacle, discussed some of the specifics of the programs during the Food Processing Suppliers Association’s Annual Conference in March.
After losing billions in sales and stock value in the wake of the outbreaks, company founder Steve Ells announced his commitment to making the restaurant chain the safest in the industry, which included focusing on vulnerabilities in the supply chain, training its 65,000 employees and enhancing food safety practices at the chain’s 2,200 locations, which includes identifying and preventing norovirus.
Beyond the financial loss related to the illness issues that stemmed back to January 2015, the bigger hit came in the form of customers who lost trust in the company. “The loyal customers who would eat at Chipotle three or four times per week,” said Dexter, “we really felt like we let them down.”
Once Marsden was hired, about two months after Dexter joined the company, Chipotle was set on a course for a more vigilant approach to food safety and the accountability of its suppliers. Initially, they scoured every ingredient and every process that the chain’s suppliers use. Dexter said during his time at suppliers’ plants, he focuses largely on process control, requiring them to demonstrate microbial reduction at each measured step in their process.
The duo also adopted technologies to improve the safety of food, including using sous-vide cooking of its beef by two suppliers. “We used to bring raw steak into our restaurants,” said Dexter, but soon after adopting the technology, the meat suppliers were cooking 800,000 pounds of beef per week to control risks.
As for the vegetables used in the eateries, blanching is the kill step used at each location for now, Dexter said.
At each restaurant, two employees are typically scheduled to come in two hours earlier than the rest of the crew with the purpose of immersing avocados, bell peppers, onions, jalapeños and citrus fruits in boiling water for five seconds.
The company has also updated its sanitation supplies in the restaurants, said Dexter, including the use of PURE Bioscience Hard Surface cleaner. Chipotle has also partnered with Ecolab to perform food safety audits and act as coaches on behalf of the company in addition to using the expertise of FoodLogiQ as part of its Supplier Management and Traceability Program. Despite the fact the chain only works with 65 ingredients, said Dexter, “you have to be able to track it; it has to be defensible.”
Chipotle Mexican Grill also has launched the “As Real as It Gets” advertising campaign created to support the company’s commitment to using only real ingredients. The launch of the campaign follows the recent announcement that Chipotle is the only national restaurant brand without added colors, flavors or preservatives (artificial or natural) in any of the ingredients it uses to prepare its food.