To say that 2015 was a bad year for Chipotle is putting it mildly – no pun intended. With five outbreaks, a 30 percent stock value loss, a 44 percent drop in net income by the fourth quarter of 2015, and a federal criminal investigation by the United States Attorney’s Office, you would think that Chipotle fans had moved on from the chain. It seems, however, that some people poisoned by Chipotle have no love lost. Recently, a 19-year old Plaintiff who has sued the chain demanded free Chipotle coupons as part of her settlement for her claims. Her lawyer is baffled. The chain has opted to give away free food coupons to patrons to entice them to come back to their restaurants. For some, this is enough of an incentive to return to the restaurant if they were not ill. But, when you think about it, would you eat at a restaurant ever again when it was the reason you were hospitalized and almost died?
The concerns surrounding Chipotle’s outbreaks do not only dwell on the severity of the illnesses, E. Coli and Norovirus, but also a scarier factor. The source of the contamination has not been found in most instances. Some patrons have been left to question if it is safe to eat at an establishment that health agencies cannot find the reason people have become ill.
Chipotle Outbreaks of 2015
It is safe to say that everyone has heard from the media or casual conversation that Chipotle was involved in a foodborne illness outbreak. However, most people are unaware that there were actually five different outbreaks from Chipotle’s products in 2015. For an easy reference, a breakdown of those outbreaks is as follows:
A few months before Chipotle was implicated in the outbreaks, in July of 2015, a 27-year-old man in Seattle became ill with E. Coli O157:H7. He was hospitalized for three days. The county’s health department later confirmed that he and four other people were sickened by a similar strain of E. Coli that was later linked to Chipotle. The health departments were not able to link the infections to Chipotle until months later, after additional illnesses came to light. Dozens of Chipotle restaurants in the area of the the Pacific Northwest were subsequently closed temporarily. The man since filed a lawsuit against the company. The source of the contamination has not been determined.
Simi Valley, California
The outbreak in Simi Valley, California was the largest of the five Chipotle outbreaks in 2015. With illnesses commencing in August of 2015, at least 234 people fell ill with Norovirus – some of which were employees of Chipotle. The first reports in August of 2016 involved 16 ill students, one of which was hospitalized, who had all eaten at the same Chipotle location. Local health departments advised that they believed that there were many other cases that went unreported or who were not able to link to the outbreak.
The local health departments were not able to find a definitive source of the contamination, but found a slew of concerning food safety violations. Some of these included: pest control issues, failure for employees to have proper food handler cards, mildew in the ice machine, and holding cooked food at dangerous temperatures.
In August and September of 2015, 64 people became ill after eating contaminated tomatoes at Chipotle restaurants in the Twin Cities areas. The Minnesota Department of Health acted quickly as the first reports came in with cases of Salmonella Newport infections. They soon suspected that tomatoes were the suspect product of the contamination, and had the restaurant chain remove them from their locations. As the agency worked to trace the tomatoes to its out of state grower, they issued a statement on September 17, 2015 that there was no longer a Salmonella Newport risk in the 22 implicated restaurants.
Multi-States – California, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington
Commencing in October of 2015, 55 people in several states suffered E. Coli O26 infections linked to various Chipotle locations. For this outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention became involved and commenced a joint investigation into a smaller related outbreak of E. Coli O26 in which 5 people fell ill. Of the 55 people who became ill, 21 required hospitalization. The Centers for Disease Control Reported in its final notice that no cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome or deaths were reported for either of the E. Coli outbreaks. The agency was able to link the cases together utilizing whole genome sequencing of the samples provided by ill individuals, but was not able to find any bacteria in the food samples tested from various Chipotle locations. The source of the contamination has not yet been found.
The last of the outbreaks, which commenced in December of 2015, involved over 136 people who fell ill with Norovirus infection. The majority of those who fell ill were students, who ate Chipotle’s products near Boston College. Others who were sickened were employees of the location at issue. Again as in most of the Chipotle outbreaks, the source of the contamination was not found.
Food Safety Restructure
In the wake of the outbreaks, Chipotle issued public statements that it intended to undergo a complete food safety restructure. Chipotle’s Co-Chief Executive Officer Steve Ells, also the company’s founder, represented that the company’s food safety practices would soon be 10 to 15 years ahead of the rest of the restaurant industry.
In February of 2016, the company hired its new Director of Food Safety James Marsden. Mr. Marsden moved to change the company’s food safety practices away from the previous ones adopted from the company’s former consultant Mansour Samadour, a food safety consultant and scientist. Mr. Marsden’s methods have led to more aggressive cooking practices, but leave critics questioning the freshness of the food. For example, Chipotle’s beef is now prepared in an off-site location and shipped to the stores for reheating. Chicken, however, is till prepared onsite. The company has since introduced further aggressive product washing and blanching methods, as well as a more stringent handwashing protocol. On February 8, 2016, the company closed all of its locations temporarily for a companywide food safety meeting.
Company spokesman Chris Arnold also has represented that the company is testing its food safety systems and products in a more frequent and rigorous fashion. Mr. Ells has publically apologized for the outbreaks and issued the following statement among them:
“From the beginning, all of our food safety programs have met or exceeded industry standards. But recent incidents, an E. coli outbreak that sickened 52 people and a norovirus outbreak that sickened approximately 140 people at a single Chipotle restaurant in Boston, have shown us that we need to do better, much better.”
Chipotle is now working to win back the trust of its customers through free food coupons.
Lawsuits and a Criminal Inspection
As of November of 2015, three victims of the outbreak filed lawsuits against the company. By January of 2016, the United States Attorney’s Office served the company with a federal subpoena for inspection – primarily focusing on the Norovirus outbreak in California. The agency, who worked in conjunction with the Food and Drug Administration, asked for Chipotle to release documents relating to the Norovirus outbreak. Chipotle issued a public statement that it fully intended to cooperate with the subpoena.
Despite the criminal inspection, the lawsuits pressed on. In September of 2016, it was reported that almost 100 people who were sickened in the five outbreaks were privately settling with Chipotle. Although the amounts have been undisclosed, one stipulation of settlement has been made well-known, some plaintiffs asked for compensation in free food. Both baffling and shocking the lawyers involved in the suits, it seems that Chipotle’s supporters are with them, ‘til death do they part. Some returned to the restaurant chain after filing their claims before any settlement was offered.
After the outbreaks, Chipotle lost over a third of their sales. However, 41% of Chipotle customers still found the chain to be a safe place to eat. Chipotle has since worked to win back the trust of its customers. Recently, they have rolled out a new frequent buyer reward program, coined Chiptopia, where you can earn free food. This rewards program comes on top of the free food coupons the company continued to hand out. As of July of 2016, 3.6 million people had joined Chiptopia. At this point, it seems that fans of the chain will remain and the company is hoping for a full comeback.