Fighting Food-Borne Infection Can Help Our Local Food Economy

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In 1993, Steve Ells, a trained Chef at the Culinary Institute of America, opened the first Chipotle Restaurant in Denver, Colorado. Chef Ells set out to redefine fast food by creating a simple menu with fresh, flavorful food and transparent operating practices. Twenty years later, Chipotle had spread to 1,900 locations, five countries, and amassed $3.2 billion in revenue.

Chipotle is fast food, but it’s different. Chef Ells has built a fast-food chain grounded in a ‘slow-food’ philosophy. Chipotle pledges to source the best ingredients, like sustainably grown vegetables, and purchase meat that has been allowed to pasture. As Steve Ells said, “We’re committed because we understand the connection between how food is raised and prepared, and how it tastes.”

Chipotle has branded itself as a company that cares about where its food comes from and how it is processed. Purchasing ingredients at a grocery and preparing food from scratch is preferable, but for many Americans that is not always possible.

During this past summer, Chipotle became engulfed by a multi-state E. coli outbreak. According to a December report from the Centers for Disease Control, 53 individuals have become sick with E. coli, resulting in 20 hospitalizations in nine different states. Notable too, was a Norovirus outbreak at a Chipotle restaurant in Boston that sickened over 130 college students. From the beginning of Chipotle’s food safety catastrophe, stock prices have fallen over 30%.

We expect this type of outbreak from national level chain restaurants like McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, who we associate with promoting poor animal conditions and unsustainable farming practices. But Chipotle? The CDC and Chipotle have still been unable to identify the contaminated food item, which has left us all wondering how this could have happened. The data available to the CDC seems to suggest that a meal item or ingredient is the cause of the E. coli outbreak, but without a definitive culprit it has been challenging for Chipotle to get ahead of this food safety crisis.

In response Chef Ells, founder and CEO, released an open letter stating his plans to increase Chipotle’s food safety program. The most at-risk time for introduction of food-borne illness is either at their source (the farm) or during preparation (in-house guacamole). In the open letter he outlined plans to create a centralized kitchen for salsa, guacamole and other food items. The rationale is that by creating a centralized kitchen, Chipotle can gain better control of their supply chain by testing large batches of food before they ship them to stores, rather than ship stores raw ingredients which could become contaminated at any throughout their trip to store fronts.

However, Ells’ new food safety policy is contrary to its founding principles. How? Chipotle, a company inspired by the slow-food movement, is now moving to create centralized kitchens to process and manufacture food products. This is identical to how McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and all other fast food chains operate. What differentiated Chipotle from other fast-food chains are its open kitchens, in-house prepared salsa and sides, and its commitment to fresh ingredients. With a centralized kitchen, will it still have the same appeal to customers seeking fresh foods? Will it still be able to deliver locally sourced ingredients?

Obviously, we need to proactively create a zero-risk situation for food-borne illness, but if our reaction is to revert to industrialization, we will limit progress. Companies that aim to produce freshly prepared foods on site will be further restricted.

On February 8, Chipotle closed all restaurants to hold a national all-staff meeting and provided vouchers for one free burrito to all its customers. We’ll never know what transpired during their four-hour meeting on food safety. Did they fix the problem? Could another outbreak happen again? What new policies were put in place? What we did learn is that the cost of gaining back public trust was estimated at one burrito, roughly $10 per person. Were they correct? Have we absolved Chipotle of all wrongdoing?

If, as physicians we promote eating unprocessed, fresh fruits and vegetables, we need to work with the food industry to ensure that minimally processed products are safe for consumers. It would be a shame if food organizations that promote local food products and sustainably sourced meat failed due to an inability to keep food safe. As physicians we are trained in reducing infectious disease and preventing illness and contamination. Physicians were the ones who realized the need for gowns, sterile operating rooms, antiseptics, hand washing and antibacterial. Could, physicians and health care organization work with local food organizations to ensure food safety? Perhaps the lessons we’ve learned in communicable disease prevention can be shared with the food industry.

Ethan Litman

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