And they’re not alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been tracking another, unrelated Chipotle food poisoning outbreak in California, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington, in which victims have been as young as one year and as old as 94. Using whole genome sequencing, CDC investigators identified the DNA fingerprint of the bacterial culprit in that outbreak as E. coli strain STEC O26, which was found in all of the sickened customers tested.
Outbreaks of food poisoning have become something of a Chipotle trademark; the recent ones are the fourth and fifth this year, one of which was not disclosed to the public. A particularly worrisome aspect of the company’s serial deficiencies is that there have been at least three unrelated pathogens in the outbreaks–Salmonella and E. coli bacteria and norovirus. In other words, there has been more than a single glitch; suppliers and employees have found a variety of ways to contaminate what Chipotle cavalierly sells (at premium prices) to its customers.
“We may be at a higher risk for food-borne illness outbreaks than some competitors,” the company admits in its filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, “due to our use of fresh produce and meats rather than frozen, and our reliance on employees cooking with traditional methods rather than automation.” (Think about that: Would you agree to open-heart surgery if the anesthesiologist planned to use “traditional methods” instead of state-of-the-art technology?)
One wonders whether Chipotle’s “traditional methods” include employees’ neglecting to wash their hands before preparing food, which is how norovirus is usually spread. And the fresh versus frozen dichotomy is nothing more than a snow-job. Freezing E. coli-contaminated food does not kill the pathogens; it preserves them. (During my laboratory research days, we stored viruses and bacteria in ultra-low-temperature freezers.)
Let’s be clear: The source of the company’s woes is a marketing-driven propensity to exploit current food fads, even if it diverts the corporate focus away from what should always be “job one”—safety.
A positive confirmation of E. coli on a testing device which scientists believe was from fresh produce such as lettuce or tomatoes served at Chipotle restaurants. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Instead of buying from the most technologically advanced farms, Chipotle instead makes a point of sourcing as many ingredients as possible from nearby farms so it can tout ingredients as “locally grown.” But this locavorism misses some of the important lessons of Economics 101—namely, the benefits of specialization and comparative advantage. By letting people specialize in those things that they are relatively good at making and then trading with others, we all become richer and better off than if we all tried to be self-sufficient. It’s no coincidence that the cultivation of crops such as corn, wheat, potatoes, and wine grapes is clustered in certain parts of the country best suited to them.
And in spite of what one might intuit, chances are that buying local isn’t any more environmentally friendly. Although local foods do travel fewer miles, there is much more to calculating environmental impact than food-miles. The vast majority of greenhouse-gas emissions occur near where the commodity is produced. As a result, it is logical to find the most efficient spots to grow fruits and vegetables and, from there, to ship them to other regions.
Chipotle eschews high-tech pesticides and genetically modified seeds in favor of rice and beans bearing an “organic” designation, as if that were an indication of a superior product. It’s not.
Contrary to popular wisdom, organic produce is not pesticide-free. Instead, it’s grown with primitive pesticides that can be significantly more hazardous to humans and to the environment. Organic agriculture also lacks the benefits of the many crops genetically improved with modern molecular techniques, like Bt-corn, which reduces the population of insects that allow toxic molds to infest corn. (Organic corn has higher levels of the toxins produced by these molds.)
Chipotle rejects modern synthetic fertilizers in favor of suppliers who use manure on their crops. This approach may be “all natural” and “organic” and make some customers feel warm and fuzzy, but it should not come as a surprise that applying stool, feces and excrement to growing fruits and vegetables significantly raises the risk of spreading disease. Bruce M. Chassy, food science professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana scoured U.S. Food and Drug Administration data to conclude that organic food is four to eight times more likely to be recalled over safety concerns than conventionally grown products.
Food poisoning is a serious business. Four years ago, 53 died and 3,950 were sickened from an E. coli outbreak in Germany caused by organic bean sprouts.
Chipotle isn’t only subjecting its customers to very serious health risks, it’s also actively spreading the pernicious superstitions of food faddism and mythology–for example, using innuendo to suggest that genetically modified food is somehow “unnatural” or dangerous in spite of mountains of research evidence and real-world experience to the contrary.
The company even produced an original TV series for Hulu called “Farmed and Dangerous” to bash conventional agriculture; New Yorker writer Elizabeth Weiss found“unsettling” the “blurred line between advertising and entertainment” in the program. Chipotle has also become a leading corporate voice in the mendacious “trash the competition” anti-genetic engineering movement.
If sleaze were infectious, Chipotle would be causing a pandemic.
Chipotle’s misguided activism, shoddy quality control and deficient employee training–not modern agricultural technology–are a danger to the company’s customers and to the public at large. I suspect that only stockholders’ expulsion of the current management team will get the company on course. That is, if there is still a company left after the trial lawyers get through with it.