Chipotle Mexican Grill has long promoted what it calls its food with integrity: fresh food without artificial flavors, genuine raw ingredients that are sourced from farms not factories and that are cooked in its kitchens using classic techniques.
At the same time, tucked into its annual reports for investors for the last two years has been a caution that by favoring fresh ingredients and traditional cooking methods the company might be more susceptible to food-borne sickness than other restaurants.
“We may be at a higher risk for food-borne illness outbreaks than some competitors due to our use of fresh produce and meats rather than frozen, and our reliance on employees cooking with traditional methods rather than automation,” the annual reports say.
As the company deals with the fallout of two of the most recent outbreaks of illness linked to its restaurants, apologizing to customers and promising stricter standards, some food-safety experts are criticizing that statement.
Ben Chapman, an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University, said that although the federal Centers for Disease Control had linked more than half the food-borne illnesses in the United States to fresh produce, other restaurants also use fresh foods without problems.
“It really means they need to manage those risks,” said Chapman, who writes for a blog that has been critical of Chipotle.
Chipotle competes against what are known as "fast casual" restaurants, Panera Bread and Shake Shack, for example. Both firms mention food-borne illnesses as risk factors in their most recent annual reports but do not appear to link them to fresh ingredients.
More than 140 Boston College students have become ill with norovirus since last week after eating at a nearby Chipotle in the city's Brighton neighborhood. An employee was sick while working a shift on Dec. 3, according to Boston officials.
Earlier this fall, 52 people in nine states were sickened with E. coli and although the CDC has not determined the ingredient responsible, 47 said they had eaten at a Chipotle before they got ill. The first cases were reported at the end of October in Oregon and Washington.
In September, the Minnesota Department of Health identified tomatoes as the source of a salmonella outbreak that sickened 64 people who ate at 22 Chipotle restaurants the month before.
And in August, a different norovirus outbreak was blamed for nearly 100 cases at a Chipotle restaurant in California.
Asked about the statement in the company’s annual reports, Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said that the company did not believe that its fresh produce and meats and traditional cooking methods put it at greater risk. He did not elaborate except to point to new safety measures that the company is enacting.
On the "Today" show Thursday, Chipotle founder Steve Ells apologized to customers who had gotten sick and promised tougher standards.
"It's a really tough time,'' Ells said. "I have to say I'm sorry for the people that got sick. They're having a tough time. I feel terrible about that, and we're doing a lot to rectify this and make sure it doesn't happen again."
￼Chipotle said it would use DNA-based tests on all fresh produce before it is shipped to restaurants, test ingredients nearing the end of their shelf life, measure the performance of vendors and suppliers based on the test results and improve employee training for food safety and food handling.
Mansour Samadpour, the CEO of IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group, who was asked to design an improved safety program for the company, said in a statement, “While it is never possible to completely eliminate all risk, this program eliminates or mitigates risk to a level near zero, and will establish Chipotle as the industry leader in this area."
Darin Detwiler, an adjunct instructor in regulatory affairs of food and food industries at Northeastern University in Boston, said that fresh ingredients should not put Chipotle at greater risk if the restaurants are carefully washing produce, cooking meat properly, preventing cross-contamination from one ingredient to another, refrigerating food at proper temperatures and taking other safety measures.
“There are plenty establishments that prepare fresh food and have quote unquote traditional cooking methods,” said Detwiler, a senior policy coordinator for STOP Foodborne Illness. “It doesn’t matter what your method is as long as the meat is cooked to the minimum or above temperature and fresh produce is supposed to be properly cleaned and inspected along the way.”
Chapman said he thought that the E. coli contamination would likely be traced to a supplier.
“It would be very, very unlikely that this is a contaminated-in-the-kitchen situation,” he said.
Each year, norovirus causes 19 million to 21 million illnesses and 570 to 800 deaths, according to the CDC. The virus is very contagious and can spread from an infected person, contaminated food or water, or contaminated surfaces. Symptoms are diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomach pain.
Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O26, linked to the Chipotle outbreak, can cause severe stomach cramps, often bloody diarrhea, vomiting and a low-grade fever, according to the CDC. Most people get better within five to seven days but other infections can be severe or even life-threatening.
Chipotle has more than 1,900 restaurants that serve burritos, tacos, burrito bowls and salads.