Can We All Finally Get Over Chipotle’s Bad Case of Food Poisoning?

Yes, even ‘food with integrity’ has the potential to make you sick—and it always has.
(Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Feb 9, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The food-poisoning saga at Chipotle continues, with the once seemingly unstoppable chain taking the unprecedented step of shuttering all 1,971 of its stores across the country for part of Monday to give employees a refresher course on food safety. Chipotle has also announced it will spend upwards of $10 million to help local farmers and other smaller-scale suppliers meet more stringent food-safety protocols, and it’s increasing the amount of paid sick leave days to further discourage sick employees from coming to work and putting public health at risk.

This is all on top of a veritable deluge of press coverage in the wake of food-borne outbreaks during the latter half of last year that has dealt a serious blow to Chipotle’s reputation. It’s a PR whirlwind that’s included what has often felt like an apology per day from founder Steve Ells or one of his corporate underlings; armchair pundits weighing the question, “Can Chipotle recover from food poisoning?”; a drumbeat of Chicken Little predictions vis-à-vis the company’s sure-to-plummet profits—followed by news that, yes, Chipotle’s profits declined by 44 percent—and plenty of self-satisfied commentators delighting in the comeuppance of a chain that once bragged about its “food with integrity” now forced to eat crow. We’ve had to endure a spate of “I survived E. coli!” stories complete with bloody diarrhea and hand-wringing over whether it’s more dangerous to eat at Chipotle than at other restaurant chains. Fast Company even dispatched a reporter to blog live from one of the company’s coast-to-coast simulcast food-safety seminars.

Related: The Limits of ‘the Chipotle of ____’

But you know what we don’t seem to have heard much of anyone say during this food-borne firestorm? That maybe, just maybe, the whole “crisis” at Chipotle has been ridiculously overblown.

First, let me say, I don’t have much of a stake in Chipotle’s future—I can’t even remember the last time I ate there. That’s not to say that as a writer who covers the food industry and sustainability, I haven’t respected the chain’s admirable-if-sometimes-smug quest to bring a higher conscientiousness to bear on the food it serves, one that has arguably had a much broader impact—for the better—on the restaurant industry as a whole.

So it’s not as a die-hard fan of Chipotle’s behemoth burritos that I say this: Enough with the schadenfreude already.

To put things into perspective, Chipotle’s recent woes can all be tied to a handful of outbreaks involving three different pathogens. The first, norovirus, is notoriously contagious. It sounds exotic to most people until you consider that you’ve probably already contracted norovirus any number of times. After all, it’s more commonly categorized under the generic catchall “stomach flu,” and as such, the vast majority of people who get it—upwards of 20 million Americans each year—experience all the yucky symptoms you’d generally associate with a stomach bug only to recover after a few days.

Now E. coli and salmonella (which was to blame for a far smaller outbreak) can admittedly be more dangerous—and with Chipotle’s twin E. coli outbreaks, we’re talking not just about any strain of the infamous bacteria, but one that produces a kind of toxin than can be lethal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced that it had concluded its investigation into the two outbreaks of illness associated with E. coli tied to Chipotle, and the results were, well, inconclusive—the feds still have no idea what was contaminated.

In all, the outbreaks connected to Chipotle sickened an estimated 500 people. That sounds like a lot, but it’s a proverbial drop in the bucket when you consider the CDC estimates some 48 million Americans contract a food-borne illness each year—that’s one in six of us.

Sure, some food-borne illnesses are scarier than others. The two separate outbreaks of Shiga-toxin-producing E. coli tied to Chipotle restaurants sickened 60 people, 22 of whom had to be hospitalized. Gross-out chronicles aside (e.g., “A Chipotle Taco Made Me Deathly Ill”), such strains of E. coli are no joke. But again, some perspective: The CDC estimates 265,000 Americans are sickened by Shiga-toxin-producing E. coli each year. The 60 cases at Chipotle represent a mere fraction of those—a scant 0.02 percent.

Yet following what has become the standard corporate playbook for coping with a PR meltdown, Chipotle has taken full and unequivocal responsibility for the outbreaks, which includes handing out coupons for free burritos while never even hinting at the fact that you’re still probably more likely to contract norovirus from, say, picking your kids up from preschool than a Chipotle. Among the more substantive measures are the aforementioned $10 million program to help local farms on the food-safety front and the expanded sick leave policy (suggesting that, even in crisis mode, Chipotle is more progressive than many of its competitors), as well as changes in how a number of ingredients are processed, such as having tomatoes and other veggies chopped at a central facility rather than in the kitchens of individual restaurants.

Everything Chipotle has done, including the seemingly endless series of mea culpas, is probably necessary if the company wants to get back on course. Putting out a press release that places the Chipotle outbreaks in context of the tens of millions of cases of food-borne illnesses the CDC estimates every year would certainly be a disaster, making it appear as if the company was blowing off the threat to its loyal customers’ health.

But in the process, what we’re missing here is an opportunity to conduct a reality check when it comes to Chipotle’s “food with integrity”—one that applies no less to the wide swath of ethical eating that is loosely described by a bounty of sometimes significant, sometimes meaningless feel-good labels, from “organic” and “antibiotic-free” to “sustainable,” “cruelty-free,” and “locavore.”

There is a lot of good to be said for thinking more deeply about what we eat and challenging the status quo of big agribusiness and factory farming. Food that is produced more conscientiously is arguably better for the planet, better for the future, and in many ways is probably better for you too. But all food is natural, not supernatural. Organic food can also become contaminated with bad bacteria. Chipotle has learned the hard way, and it appears to be taking meaningful steps to address any lapses in food safety. So rather than continue to act like a bunch of third graders howling over Chipotle’s case of cooties, can the rest of us just grow up, get over it, and move on?