I’ve long been an advocate of calling out Chipotle Mexican Grill on their BS. Their Food With Integrity marketing campaigns have lacked integrity and perpetuated lies about hard-working American farm and ranch families. Chipotle has spent years building up their brand as being superior to conventional food systems, while their ideal (sustainable, organic, non-GMO) foods have often made up only a portion of the menu in more than 1,900 restaurants. They’ve pulled support from American farmers by sourcing ingredients from foreign countries and somehow still managed to call themselves sustainable.
In 2015, the walls came tumbling down. After a series of disease outbreaks resulting from foodborne illnesses at multiple locations across the country, their same-store sales fell in the fourth quarter and their stocks have lost significant value. Cases of norovirus and multiple strains of e.coli have made hundreds of people sick from coast to coast and the CDC has yet to announce findings of known sources of the contaminants.
The mess continues into 2016 as news of a federal subpoena was announced regarding investigation into one of Chipotle’s southern California locations where norovirus resulted in 234 illnesses. Chipotle’s Executive and PR teams have failed time and again at bringing a timely, sincere and appropriate response to these events. Their solution is to change some food handling protocols, but it does not address the source of the contaminants.
Our Concern Should be Confidence in Food Safety
According to Michael Roberts, executive director of the Resnick Program for Food Law and Policy at UCLA School of Law in POLITICO Morning Ag (01/07/2016), “the federal grand jury subpoena served to Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. is “new territory” for foodborne illness investigations and sends a strong message to companies… We haven’t seen this level of aggression, but we’ve been moving in this direction.” Roberts was “citing an uptick in criminal investigations and prosecutions of foodborne illness outbreaks.”
“Roberts said federal investigators will be looking for malfeasance in terms of responding to and reporting the outbreak and whether Chipotle complied with food safety regulations, among other factors. ‘When you get to this level, it’s less about the outbreak and more about the response,’ he said. ‘It’s always the cover up that gets people in trouble. I’m not suggesting that’s what’s going on, but that is what this is about.'”
Roberts brings about a good point. This isn’t just about Chipotle making people sick. As much as I’d love the unfolding situation to be about karma and the fallout from their misleading advertising that misrepresented American agriculture, this disease outbreak is about a bigger story of food safety. Events that raise concern about the safety of our food supply leave a negative impression on our customers.
Among its loyal followers, Chipotle has committed a message that their ideal foods raised with integrity are superior to conventional foods. When that “food with integrity” makes people sick, what does that say about the food they believed to be inferior?
We Should Discuss How Food Is Safe
A respectful response to this situation is to talk about why we have modern food safety protocols in place. This should be an opportunity for conversations about the tools in place throughout the food system (growers, processors, transporters and retailers) to ensure that we have one of the safest food supplies in the world.
Chipotle tried to go around the system because their style made for better marketing to what consumers perceived as better food. This is what happens when you ignore food safety protocols throughout the system.
An outbreak of foodborne illness can happen to anyone, anywhere at anytime (i.e. Jack in the Box (1993) or beef recalls for e.coli), however we have learned from our mistakes and implemented protocols and procedures to prevent these things from happening, monitoring the situation and addressing the situation when contamination occurs.
Chipotle Mexican Grill is not exempt.
As Diana Prichard (righteousbacon.com) points out, Chris Arnold may now wish “he hadn’t been a pompous douchebag to the ONE group of people who would and could have loudly and quite effectively stood by Chipotle’s side in crisis management on this; one of the only groups with a vested interest in and deep understanding of the ins and outs of the food safety system throughout the supply chain; and arguably the best group at PR among them: American farmers.”
Our modern food system (with all its technology, biotechnology, animal raising systems, quality assurance programs and complex industry networks) is safe, efficient and productive. We should be promoting those efforts to reassure confidence in our ability to produce safe food. Not knocking others into the ground – no matter how misleading their marketing efforts may be.
However, don’t get me wrong. I will continue to call out Chipotle when they say farmers lack integrity.
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