No, This Isn’t Another Story About Food Poisoning at Chipotle—Except It Kind Of Is

Why is it that we become obsessed with some outbreaks of food-borne illness and not others?
(Photos: Tim Graham/Getty Images; Flickr)
Jan 28, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

What major nationwide food-poisoning outbreak that began last year has so far been tied to at least six deaths, has sickened some 888 people across 39 states, and remains an ongoing investigation at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?

Chipotle? Nah—try cucumbers.

Ring a bell? Early last September, the CDC issued an alert following an outbreak of salmonella poona. While the majority of reported cases were in Western states, the initial alert identified a total of 27 states where illnesses had occurred. The source was traced back to contaminated cucumbers imported from Mexico and distributed by Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce.

This week, the CDC updated its Web page devoted to the outbreak, noting that since the middle of November, 50 more cases have been reported across 16 states, resulting in two deaths. “The number of reported illnesses has declined substantially since the peak of the illnesses in August and September,” the agency wrote. “However, it has not returned to the number of reported illnesses that we would expect to see (about 1 every month during this time of year). The investigation into the source of these recent illnesses is ongoing.”

To get a sense of the wide disparity in how the public and the media react to various outbreaks of food-borne illness, just go to Google. Search “cucumbers food poisoning,” and you get a smattering of articles dating from last fall from outlets such as Food Poison Journal. Search “Chipotle food poisoning,” and up come stories from NBC News, The Huffington Post, Forbes, and The New Yorker, the latter’s headlined “Can Chipotle Recover From Food Poisoning?”

As you likely know, Chipotle suffered from a spate of food-poisoning scares last year—five known outbreaks caused by three bugs. Arguably the scariest was an outbreak of Shiga-toxin-producing E. coli. But even as the illness made some customers dangerously sick (the latest CDC stats report 20 hospitalizations), the outbreak, with 53 cases across nine states, pales compared with the salmonella outbreak linked to the Andrew & Williamson cukes.

In the aftermath of the cucumber scare, no one appears to have written any articles titled “Can Cucumbers Recover From Food Poisoning?”

So what gives? Call it a bad case of schadenfreude and comeuppance. As any number of media outlets have recounted with barely suppressed glee, Chipotle has long marketed itself (with some degree of perceived sanctimony) as a fresher, healthier, all-around better alternative to fast food. As one commentator at Newsday put it this week in response to Chipotle’s ongoing efforts to lure back customers in the wake of all the bad PR: “Chipotle needs to transform its business and marketing model and stop with the smug assertions that it ‘serves food with integrity.’ Because, to put it bluntly, no one cares about integrity when they spent the holidays throwing up.”

What about cucumbers? Should they stop flaunting themselves as “fresh veggies”? The point isn’t that Chipotle shouldn’t be undertaking a deep, thorough, top-to-bottom look at the issue of food safety across the entire chain and its suppliers—five outbreaks of food-borne illness tied to the company last year pretty much says it should. But I would argue that we shouldn’t be pressuring the chain to abandon its ideal of food served with integrity; rather, we should be encouraging its efforts to fully live up to that promise.