Chipotle’s dangerous and lucrative food farce

Chipotle has had five incidents of foodborne illness in nine states since July.
Chipotle has had five incidents of foodborne illness in nine states since July. Getty Images

Chipotle Mexican Grill learned the hard way to be careful what you wish for – because you might just get it. The chain has always encouraged customers to ask questions about where food comes from and how it’s made. Now a closer look at Chipotle’s food supply exposes flaws that might have contributed to multiple outbreaks of E. coli this year.

These outbreaks of foodborne illness – five incidents spanning nine states since July sickening hundreds – have placed Chipotle’s food production and preparation systems under intense scrutiny. Deeper insight into Chipotle’s supply chain reveals contradictions in its marketing rhetoric and operational realities.

Consider the superior quality emphasized in the chain’s better-for-you branding. Chipotle has long advertised its preference for organic and fresh food, sourced locally and prepared by hand, as parts of its commitment to “the very best ingredients.”

However, concessions in the company’s most recent annual report note these same buzzword standards may compromise food safety.

One passage admits Chipotle “may be at a higher risk for food-borne illness outbreaks than some competitors due to (its) use of fresh produce and meats rather than frozen, and (its) reliance on employees cooking with traditional methods rather than automation.”

The report also cautions the “significant commitment to serving local or organic produce” pledged by Chipotle could “make it more difficult to keep quality consistent, and present additional risk of food-borne illnesses.” Organic food, for instance, is often grown with manure (an “all-natural” fertilizer), which can certainly increase the risks of accidentally spreading fecal bacteria like E. coli.

These excerpts suggest Chipotle knowingly served less safe ingredients under the guise of “food with integrity.” You’d be hard-pressed to find these admissions in Chipotle’s ads, too.

But the company didn’t just misrepresent the risks associated with locally grown ingredients; it also exaggerated the scope of its local supply chain.

Even during peak growth seasons, local farms account for only about 10 percent of produce. The remaining percentage of suppliers include some of the same mega-distributors used by McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Denny’s – all members of the so-called “industrial” food system publicly eschewed (and quietly used) by Chipotle.

The contamination crisis has since compelled Chipotle, in acts of self-preservation, to roll back some of its feel-good fluff.

The company recently announced it will tighten guidelines for its suppliers – an outcome expected to reduce the amount of locally sourced produce served. It is also moving away from its emphasis on fresh and traditional cooking methods to embrace more centralized food preparation. Tomatoes, for example, will now be cleaned and diced at off-site before they are shipped to Chipotle restaurants.

This overhaul of its food safety protocols might seem like evidence that Chipotle has finally learned its lesson about the fantasy world created by its marketing campaigns in which “big” is bad, versus the reality in which “industrial” food can provide quality assurance better than a smattering of small producers. But perhaps not.

Last month, Chipotle took out a full-page advertisement in 61 newspapers across the country. In the open letter to customers, its CEO claimed, “From the beginning, all of (Chipotle’s) food safety programs have met or exceeded industry standards.”

Tell that to the customers who were hospitalized.

The company has long lampooned regular food to smugly pass off its calorie-laden burritos as healthier options. Other marketing ploys abound, such as Chipotle’s claim to serve “antibiotic-free” meat, as if its competitors didn’t (all meat is free of antibiotics), or to stop serving food with genetically modified ingredients (even though these foods are not any nutritionally different from other foods).

This willingness to flout food science is now exposing Chipotle’s “food with integrity” as a lucrative farce. It should provide some clarity to consumers about what matters in food. And for other food providers looking for the latest marketing ploy, it should provide a cautionary tale.

Will Coggin is director of research at the Center for Consumer Freedom.