By: Kerry Bazany

Notorious is not how a person wants to be remembered. Merriam Webster dictionary defines this term as “widely and unfavorably known”: emphasis on unfavorably. We all do things that may fall into this category, but luckily, perhaps only family members and our closest friends know the details of our faux pas. It’s a different story, however, if you are a major food chain corporation with a lot at stake in terms of negative press.

Here’s a rundown of the most infamous and notorious episodes that occurred over the last thirty years that served as a sobering reminder of just how critical food safety is when we sit down to dine at our favorite fast food establishment. Some “honorable mentions” include events that are just well, downright funny, e.g. “what were they thinking?”

Jimmy John’s “Sproutbreak”

As recently as the beginning of this year, Jimmy John’s experienced yet another recall due to alfalfa sprouts. Additionally, there were foodborne illnesses attributed to this restaurant’s sandwiches in 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014. These outbreaks were due to the use of fresh produce, especially sprouts (both clover and alfalfa), as well as iceberg lettuce. Curiously, in 2012 it was announced that Jimmy John’s was to “permanently remove sprouts from their menus”, according to a Jimmy John’s spokesperson. However, it was mentioned in the same statement that the removal was due to “limited and inconsistent supplies” of the sprouts.


Perhaps one of the most well-known foodborne illness outbreaks is associated with Chipotle Mexican restaurants. In 2015, California’s Simi Valley reported 243 cases of norovirus, and in Minnesota and Wisconsin, 54 individuals sickened 60 people. Eleven states reported 60 people with E. coli infections, including 22 hospitalizations. A second norovirus outbreak in Boston caused foodborne illness in 143.The precise cause of the outbreaks was never discerned, leading to public distrust of the chain and a consequent fall in stock price. Since then, Chipotle has instituted new regulations; however, its reputation has taken a major hit.

Jack in the Box

Infections due to E. coli produced illness in 732 people in 1993: the most of any recent foodborne pathogen outbreak. This outbreak was associated with Jack in the Box fast food restaurants, specifically due to undercooked burgers. Seventy three Jack in the Box locations in California, Idaho, Washington, and Nevada were identified as serving the contaminated burgers. In Washington State alone, 144 people were hospitalized, with 30 of them developing HUS (a potentially deadly kidney disease caused by toxicity from an E. coli infection). Four people died: all of them were children.

Burger King Without Burgers?

In 1997, 25 million (yes, million) pounds of ground beef were recalled following an E.coli contamination that sickened 16 people in Colorado. Over 1600 restaurants in 28 states took burgers off of their menus for a brief period of time when Hudson Foods, meat supplier to Burger King, pulled its ground beef off the market at the behest of the USDA, after quarter-pound hamburgers were found to be contaminated with E.coli bacteria.

 Taco Bell

In 2006, symptoms of foodborne illness were reported to the CDC from four northeastern states, including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. This outbreak infected 71 persons, of whom 53 were hospitalized, and 8 developed HUS.  The culprit is in this outbreak was identified as being a virulent strain of E.coli (O157) that originated from shredded lettuce and was traced back to a California producer. Both the Taco Bell and Chipotle E.coli outbreaks have changed the way both restaurants prepare food, especially produce. For example, tomatoes, cilantro, and lettuce will be prepared in a central kitchen location and shipped to restaurants in plastic bags, according to the Wall Street Journal. Additionally, kitchen chefs will take extra measures to kill bacteria, such as dipping onions in boiling water before they are chopped. However, Taco Bell’s overall public images as well as stock prices were not as damaged as Chipotle’s because the source of the contamination in the case of Taco Bell was quickly ascertained and lasted for a shorter period of time.  In addition, Chipotle’s famous motto “food with integrity” was greatly maligned by the specter of foodborne illness.

Honorable Mentions

Notoriety of the “notorious” variety does not have to come by way of the lack of food safety or horrendous outbreaks. For instance, in 2002, McDonald’s corporation experienced one of its worst marketing failures courtesy of a menu item it named “The McAfrika”.  This was extremely poor timing on the part of McDonald’s marketers as it was debuted in Norway during some of the worst famines that South Africa had ever experienced. Eventually McDonald’s took the item off its menu and instead set up donation boxes for famine relief in Africa.

Quizno’s Subs and Blubs

In 2003, one of the biggest and perhaps creepiest marketing blunders occurred when Quizno’s decided that it would be a good idea to borrow an idea from an animator by the name of Joel Veitch. He created some creatures called “spongmonkeys”, curious-looking, levitating creatures with bulging eyes that seem to actually turn people off their food rather than desire it. Quite unintentionally, and for a brief period of time, everyone was talking about Quizno’s.

The fast food corporations that constitute much of our American landscape hold a very precious commodity in their hands: our trust. We as consumers can tolerate blunders such as ill-timed advertising, but the trust that we put into the safety of the food that we order is so much more important, even vital. It would most likely go a long way to restoring trust if these companies would air advertisements that present and explain how steps are taken to ensure best food safety practices.