Chipotle closed for wankfest

That was a boring super bowl, full of gimmicks and a quarterback pushing Bud Light as his soundbite, but it won’t be as boring as Chipotle’s two-hour wankfest when they close their almost 2,000 outlets for a food safety pep talk.

kenny.diarrheaIt’s not food safety, it’s a marketing gimmick (which is how Chipotle has been getting money all along).

Chipotle is closed for the next couple of hours.

And they’re going to show how much they know about food safety risk communication.

Or how bad their PR consultants are.

The meeting will go over an improved farm-to-fork food safety program, which the chain implemented in January. It includes paid sick leave to make sure employees will stay home when they’re sick, DNA-based testing of ingredients before they’re shipped to restaurants and some changes in food preparation protocols.

Why didn’t they do this before?

Because there’s money to be made in marketing hucksterism.

Ask Dr. Oz.

About 500 people got sick last year from outbreaks due to Norovirus, E. coli O26 and Salmonella,, including an entire basketball team at Boston College. Some of the sickened diners have sued Chipotle. Profits plunged 44% in the fourth quarter compared to the year before. The U.S. Justice Department is investigating the company for possible criminal activity.

Oh, they’ll also be launching a new website today, according to the aptly named Mark Crumpacker, Chipotle’s chief creative and development officer.

“The creative for this campaign, with one small exception, does not mention food safety or the recent incidents,” he said. “Instead, it reinforces our commitment to high-quality ingredients and great-tasting food.”

Market food safety. High-quality ingredients don’t mean shit (literally and metaphorically).

Beating up on Chipotle and hucksterism gets tiring. So let John Oliver do it.

‘Verging on the ridiculous’ and I won’t eat there, but I’ve said that since 2007: Chipotle still sucks

Nice to see my microbiological friends Linda Harris and Trevor Suslow, both of the University of California, Davis, mentioned in this National Geographic piece.

diarrhea burrito’Rachel Becker writes that Chipotle Mexican Grill has had a rough couple of months.

First, a series of foodborne outbreaks radiating from Chipotle restaurants across the country sickened hundreds. Then, the U.S. Attorney’s Office served the fast-casual restaurant chain with subpoenas in an investigation into an August outbreak of norovirus—the virus infamous for causing explosive diarrhea—at a California Chipotle location.

In early December, Chipotle declared that it would revamp its food handling practices to become an industry leader in food safety. It even took the unprecedented step of announcing it would close more than 2,000 locations for four hours on February 8 so employees could attend a company-wide meeting broadcast from Denver to discuss the company’s new food safety procedures.

But the bad press just keeps coming. In a country where foodborne illnesses sicken 48 million people, hospitalize 128,000, and kill 3,000 each year, does Chipotle deserve the scrutiny it’s been getting? Or is the company that makes its money selling “Food with Integrity,” shunning the standard fast food supply chain in favor of “responsible” food, just getting picked on for trying to stand out?

linda.harris.storyLinda Harris, a food safety microbiologist at the University of California, Davis (left, exactly as shown, and she was on my PhD advisory committee), thinks that the scrutiny is fair, adding that the number of outbreaks Chipotle has had this year is “verging on the ridiculous.”

“I think if other restaurants have had problems over that time frame and in those states, it would have been reported as much as it was for Chipotle,” she says.

In July, five people in Seattle came down with E. coli O157:H7 infections after eating at a local Chipotle. Then in August, norovirus struck a southern California Chipotle, sickening a final count of 234 people including 18 employees according to Ventura County environmental health spokesperson Doug Beach.

Around the same time, tomatoes contaminated with Salmonella Newport found their way into 22 Chipotle locations in Minnesota, infecting 64 people. Between October and December two strains of another type of E. coli, E. coli O26, infected 60 people in total who had eaten at Chipotle. To cap off a series of unfortunate events, in December 136 people were infected with norovirus in Boston after eating at the fast-casual restaurant—the outbreak was traced back to a sick employee.

Fortunately, there have been no deaths. But there has been a lot of diarrhea.

Chipotle has taken steps to address the problems. It’s moved tomato, lettuce, and cheese preparation to a central kitchen, implemented more testing for dangerous microbes, added a blanching step for some of the produce, changed marinating procedures, and added financial incentives for restaurant managers that are contingent on high food safety audit scores.

But it wasn’t enough to stop the financial bleeding. The restaurant announced on February 2 that revenue went down the toilet in the fourth quarter of 2015 with a 44% decrease in profit.

Doug Powell, a former professor of food safety at Kansas State University and founder of the appropriately named food safety blog,, says that he anticipated these outbreaks at Chipotle years ago.

“I’ve pointed this out since 2007,” he says. “They were more concerned about GMO-free, sustainable, natural, antibiotic-free—and in my experience when you do that, you tend to lose your focus on the things that actually make people sick.”

(Chipotle, to some extent, also anticipated these problems; their 2014 Annual Report listed food borne illness as a potential consequence of their emphasis on using fresh produce in their restaurants.)

Chris Arnold, a Chipotle spokesperson, disagrees that Chipotle’s priorities were misplaced. “I don’t think there is any validity at all to that,” he says. “We have always maintained food safety programs that are consistent with industry standards. These incidents have shown us that we need to do better, and that is what we are doing.”

Trevor Suslow, who specializes in food safety of produce at University of California, Davis, says that assessing whether Chipotle’s new food handling strategies will be effective requires that Chipotle make more details available. He expressed concerns that blanching—dipping foods into boiling water for a matter of seconds—might not kill certain kinds of bacteria embedded in produce or coating food items in a biofilm.

And Suslow, Harris, and Powell also note that there are limits to how much food testing can protect a food supply chain. “Product testing is a very last icing on the cake, if you will, of food safety management. It’s a verification activity only. It should not be the basis of your food safety management program,” Harris says.

Chipotle spokesperson Arnold responds that testing is an important part of their new plans, but not the only part. It’s “the layering of all of these program components that contribute to the strength of the whole food safety program,” he says in an email.

Instead, Harris and Powell say, the key to avoiding repeated outbreaks is a systemic culture of food safety.

“I think it really goes back to Chipotles’ attitude,” Powell says. “They want to put all of their money into sustainable, GMO-free, organic, whatever. That’s great. I don’t really care about how it’s grown. I care if it’s going to make people barf.”

Microbial food safety – what makes people barf — doesn’t have a chance

Burger-mania is set to hit Australia again tomorrow, as the controversial American burger chain Carl’s Jr opens its first Australian store on the NSW Central Coast.’s Jr has set up shop in Bateau Bay near The Entrance, next to McDonald’s, and is offering a year’s worth of free burgers to the first 50 people through the door on Tuesday.

It’s a publicity stunt set to rival that of fellow US burger chain In-N-Out, which opened a four-hour pop-up restaurant in Surry Hills last month and sold out of product half an hour before the store opened.

It’s in the genes: Immunity could protect some from E. coli while others fall ill

When a child comes home from preschool with a stomach bug that threatens to sideline the whole family for days, why do some members of the family get sick while others are unscathed?

it' to a Duke Health study published January 19 in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, a person’s resistance to certain germs, specifically E. coli bacteria, could come down to their very DNA.

Researchers exposed 30 healthy adults to enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli, one of the world’s leading causes of bacteria-induced diarrhea and a common cause of so-called ‘traveler’s diarrhea,’ which often requires treatment with antibiotics.

To learn more about why some people get sick and others stay well, the researchers drew patients’ blood and looked for clues in their gene expression — the degree to which some genes are turned on or off. They noted differences among the six patients with severe symptoms, and six participants who showed no symptoms despite having been exposed to the bacteria.

Among the thousands of genes that distinguished the two groups, there were significant differences in the activity of 29 immune-related genes that could predict who would go on to become sick and those who would remain well, said senior author Ephraim Tsalik, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine at Duke. Tsalik and colleagues at Duke collaborated with the Durham VA Medical Center and Johns Hopkins University on the study.

“Within each group, there were changes in the patients’ gene expression patterns happening throughout the experiment,” Tsalik said. “We found there were differences with the subjects that seemed to predict who would become sick. We interpreted those as signals that show an innate resistance to infection. There may be certain genetic traits that can increase or decrease your chances of being infected after exposure to a pathogen.”

The scientists hope to replicate the study with other types of infections, including viral and respiratory illnesses such as the flu.

Hockey players get better with constant practice, not 2 hour gimmicks: Chipotle is ‘focused on bullshit’

Yes, I said it. it was 4 a.m., I was talking with Joseph Erbentraut of The Huffington Post, getting ready for hockey, and didn’t want to deal with niceties.

It’s been six months since the start of Chipotle’s food safety crisis — a series of six outbreaks that have sickened at least 500 people.

The company has apologized for the outbreaks of norovirus and E. coli, tweaked its cooking methods and announced that it will temporarily close all its stores for a companywide food safety meeting on Feb. 8. But with an investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still underway, it appears the company still hasn’t identified the source of the contamination.

Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold pointed The Huffington Post to a Jan. 19 press release announcing that the company’s “comprehensive new food safety programs” are largely already in place, and that it will be sharing information with its employees at the Feb. 8 meeting about what they believe caused the food safety issues.

Doug Powell, a former Kansas State University food safety professor and the publisher and editor of Barfblog, a popular food safety blog, isn’t convinced. He’s been wary of Chipotle for almost a decade now, and has his doubts that the company’s new approach will solve anything.

HuffPost recently spoke with Powell about why Chipotle has struggled in its response to the outbreaks — and what it should be doing instead.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is it taking Chipotle so long to figure out the source of this E. coli outbreak, compared to the other food safety issues they’ve had over this last year?

chipotle_ad_2Never underestimate the power of denial. The epidemiology is clear that there was an outbreak involving E. coli O26, and in this case it was probably from the cilantro or some other fresh produce item that wasn’t cooked. Fresh produce is the biggest source of foodborne illness in the U.S. and has been for the last 10 years, and that’s because it’s not cooked. We want it fresh.

Somehow in the last five years in the U.S., the produce folks have gotten much more aggressive about having to test [bacteria] in the product and find it. Tell any scientist that and they’ll say that’s bullshit, because it’s a fresh product, so it’s here and gone and we’re not going to find [bacteria]. Testing really only tells you that this one really minor sample, in this one batch, in one lot, came back negative. It doesn’t tell you much else. You can’t test your way to a safe food supply.

Chipotle has really built its brand around using fresh produce, and consumer demand for food like this has been rising. So the company has put itself in this risky position, right?

It doesn’t have to increase the risk. It means that they have to be better at having on-farm food safety plans for their suppliers and enforcing them. It seems to me that Chipotle was much more concerned about being natural, sustainable, GMO-free, hormone-free — anything but microbiologically safe — and that’s why they’ve had six outbreaks in six months. The two norovirus outbreaks have nothing to do with the on-farm contamination. That’s human.

They say they’ve introduced sick leave [on Wednesday], but they actually had it six months ago. They’re recycling press releases at this point, which tells me they’re kind of desperate. They’re all about the money and they’ve lost 47 percent of their stock value.

The company is facing a new class-action lawsuit this week, where it’s being accused of a cover-up in the norovirus outbreak in Simi Valley, California. How much damage has this done to Chipotle’s brand at this point? 

It’s billions of dollars. It’s embarrassing that a company is allowed to get away with this sort of stuff, these multiple failures, while at the same time they’re charging a premium for “sustainable” food, whatever that means. All these adjectives that they use in their marketing don’t really mean anything. This is a company really focused on bullshit rather than being focused on microbiologically safe food. [Chipotle has emphasized that it is just as dedicated to using what it calls the highest-quality ingredients as it is to being an industry leader in food safety.]

Does the question of government regulation play a role in this?

Government is there to ensure a minimum standard. But they do not make the profit and they do not really enforce safe food. That is up to the company… You want to make the profit off the food, you’re going to be liable. So they’re taking some well-deserved hits at this point. Whether they’ll recover or not — they can, but just going to the PR solution and this gimmick of shutting all the stores down for two hours on Feb. 8 isn’t how you do training. It takes every week reinforcing the messages and focusing on one goal.

What should Chipotle be doing right now that it isn’t already? Are there examples to look to of similar companies that have handled this effectively?

They’ve followed the Jack in the Box model from 1993 in that they hired some food safety consultants and they’re listening to them. That’s good, but that is not going to change the culture within the organization. Those two norovirus outbreaks are cultural things more than anything. That’s not some mysterious bug coming in — it’s employees showing up sick to work. They can say they have strict procedures that sick employees don’t work, but anyone who’s ever worked at a restaurant knows what happens when you don’t show up to work. You’re done.

I don’t see, so far, that they’ve gotten that religious about food safety. They’ve hired some good consultants and they’ll do more testing and that’s all good, but when you’ve got 2,000 locations, that’s a pretty big vulnerability.

And get off my bench, posers.

Same as it ever was, safe as it ever was: terrible soundbites in Chipotle’s food safety mess

In 2006, then U.S. food safety czar, David Acheson, proclaimed on CNN – that was back when people watched CNN – that spinach after the 2006 outbreak that killed four and sickened about 200 would, when it back on sale, be as safe as it was before the outbreak.

orwell.1984It was Orwellian speak.

Ten years later, Chipotle says the recent outbreaks will end up costing between $14 million and $16 million, with  CEO Steve Ells saying with a straight face, “We know that Chipotle is as safe as it’s ever been before.


Diarrhea burrito is not healthy eating: Chipotle gets a free pass

For whatever reason – money – Chipotle investors and apologists are willing to look beyond the company’s many failings.

diarrhea burrito’If Chipotle really wanted to be a leader, they would have embraced microbiologically safe food and internal verification long before the 2015 outbreaks.

If Chipotle really wanted to be a leader they’d stop playing to consumer fears with their advertising.

If Chipotle really wanted to be a leader, they would embrace genetically engineered foods that require fewer and far less harmful pesticides.

Chipotle is a follower, sucking up dollars wherever it can.

In its latest PR rah-rah stunt, Chipotle is going to close all of its 1,900 outlets on Feb. 8 for a few hours “for company executives to be transparent about the status of the E. coli outbreak, and what Chipotle is doing to prevent it from happening again.

Chipotle’s stock price sits is currently down around 40% off its 52-week high, as the outbreak news hurt sales more than had been expected. The company has advised investors that it could be a few rocky quarters before Chipotle sees a definitive, positive improvement.

In an effort to bring back some of the customers it’s lost, Chipotle co-CEO Monty Moran said Wednesday it will be doubling the amount of free food restaurants can give away to its customers, reports

The New York Times says, with a straight face, Chipotle’s new mantra is “Safe food, not just fresh” while gushing that, “From its start in 1993 as a burrito stand in Denver opened by a young Culinary Institute of America-trained chef who borrowed money from his parents, Chipotle now has more than 2,000 locations. Its stock nearly doubled over the last five years, and in August the company reached a market value of $23 billion.

south.park.diarrhea“Chipotle emphasizes fresh, locally sourced ingredients. It was the first major chain to reject genetically modified food. Chipotle has embodied the notion of doing well by doing good.”

That’s not doing anyone any good.

It’s marketing BS.

Consumers aren’t so dumb or confused. Chipotle said same-store sales dropped a greater-than-expected 14.6 percent in the last quarter, and analysts have been scrambling to downgrade their ratings. On Tuesday, Chipotle shares dipped below $400 and were down 47 percent from the August high.

Two of the incidents, the one in Simi Valley, Calif., in August that sickened 234 people, and another in Boston in December, which affected at least 136 customers, were linked to a norovirus, a highly contagious virus that causes gastroenteritis. It is spread through contact with an infected person, a surface bearing the virus, or by contaminated food.

Chipotle has said both outbreaks were caused by sick employees who ignored strict policies prohibiting them from coming to work and, without elaborating, said that disciplinary measures were meted out to those responsible.

Anyone can say they have strict policies (Heston-norovirus-isn’t-my-fault Blumenthal comes to mind) but verification, that takes effort.

In August, 64 people were treated for salmonella after eating at a Chipotle in Minnesota. Fresh tomatoes were identified as the culprit.

Chipotle shares have jumped nearly 14 percent over the last two days after company executives gave an upbeat presentation to investors, bankers and analysts at the ICR investor conference in Orlando, Fla., where they predicted the brand would regain its luster and reiterated an aggressive expansion and growth plan.

Follow the money.

‘Bacteria, viruses don’t care if food is GMO-free or natural’ and ‘safety of our guests is always our highest priority’ Chipotle still struggles with food safety

It’s difficult to fathom Chapman as an expert of anything, except garbage goals in hockey and bailing his PhD supervisor out of jail (as all graduate students should do).

family.guy.diarrheaI also hate being called an expert, but I know some stuff.

Dr. Chapman told Technician Online that, “Practicing good hygiene and having systems in place to verify that foods are cooked go a long way in preventing these sort of outbreaks. On the supplier’s side, systems are needed to make sure that suppliers are managing food safety on farms and the processing companies.”

On the individual’s side, Chapman said there is not much a customer can do to ensure that the food they get from a retailer is safe. Sanitation scores can be checked as a precaution but mostly it just comes down to trust in the retailer.

“The safety and well-being of our guests are always our highest priority,” said an official statement from Chipotle and Customer Service Consultant Olivia Beltran.

Stephanie K. Baer of The Pasadena Star-News wrote a few days ago that Chipotle’s food safety problems are about much more than where the Denver-based food company gets its ingredients, according to inspection data and experts.

Food safety experts say the fact there have been so many foodborne illness outbreaks in such a short period of time — six different outbreaks of E. coli, norovirus and salmonella in six months — it is indicative of a lack of training and oversight of the fast-food chain’s employees.

While there have been no confirmed reports of customers getting sick at Chipotle locations in Los Angeles County, major health hazards that cause foodborne illness are common at the food chain’s locations in the area.

Outbreaks at restaurants are commonly caused by ill employees and unsafe cooking or holding temperatures of perishable food, among other factors. And at Chipotle, where burritos are constructed with precooked and prepared food at a steam table, maintaining safe food temperatures is a recurring problem, according to inspection data and reports.

“There will always be foodborne illnesses, complaints and deficiencies, but what we see here appears to be repeated incidents that are similar in nature and that would suggest a systemic problem within the company that requires further investigation,” said Angelo Bellomo, deputy director for health protection at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

According to Los Angeles County Department of Public Health inspection data, health inspectors observed 126 violations for unsafe hot and cold holding temperatures at Chipotle restaurants — the most common health hazard observed across 84 locations in Los Angeles County — between July 1, 2013, and June 30, 2015.

kenny.diarrheaAt the Simi Valley Chipotle, a health inspector who visited the location after the August outbreak found a container of beef held at 118 degrees — more than 15 degrees colder than required hot holding temperatures — according to Ventura County Environmental Health Division documents.

Similar food temperature violations were observed at the Boston restaurant where more than 130 people were sickened by norovirus and in Seattle and Portland area restaurants where the largest numbers of E. coli cases have been confirmed, online inspection reports show.

“It’s ridiculous that they can get that wrong so often,” said Doug Powell, a retired food safety professor and the publisher of

While cooking food to the proper temperatures kills bacteria that is commonly found on raw meat, keeping food at the proper hot or cold temperatures is important to minimize the growth of pathogenic bacteria, like E. coli and salmonella, that may be in the food.

It’s a problem, Powell noted, that restaurants deal with industrywide — inspection data shows unsafe holding temperatures is the most common public health threat in Los Angeles County restaurants — but other prominent food chains seem to have a better handle on the issue.

Los Angeles County health inspectors observed 146 violations for unsafe hot and cold holding temperatures across 350 McDonald’s facilities between July 1, 2013, and June 30, 2015 — 20 more than what was found at Chipotle facilities — according to inspection data. However, the problem was less common at McDonald’s, where facility and equipment maintenance were the most common health code violations.

 “To really get to the heart of this matter they really have to focus on the culture within individual stores and that’s hard with 1,900 outlets,” Powell said. “They have to focus on the things that really make people sick because bacteria don’t care or viruses don’t care if your food is GMO-free or natural.”

Yet despite these obvious flaws, people still go to Chipotle, much like my wife still professes in me.

The Washington Post reports that despite outbreaks of food-borne illness, die-hard Chipotle fans stand by their chain

For burrito brigade, it’s a matter of risk vs. reward

Anne and Jeff Owens love Chipotle. They love it so much that they went there on their wedding day four years ago— she, radiant in her strapless wedding gown and a veiled fascinator in her hair, and he, in his tuxedo and teal vest — to order burritos and pose for photos. They love it so much that the Blacksburg, Va., couple goes back each Aug. 13, their anniversary, to re-create those photos, with their now 3-year-old daughter in tow. They love it so much that even now — even with Chipotle Mexican Grill linked to hundreds of cases of illness because of E. coli, salmonella and norovirus — they still go at least once a week.

“We’re totally willing to throw up a little for tradition,” Anne says. She laughs, then pauses. “That’s probably gross,” she says. “That’s so gross!” But even if their anniversary had come during the height of the outbreak, she adds, “we totally would have gone.”

“Sorry but I still love chipotle. And you have to take risks when it comes to love,” tweeted @calisalafia. “since I continue to eat chipotle knowing the risk i guess you could say i would die for chipotle,” @GNVZT tweeted.

“Sometimes, something gets some sort of odd cult following, and it builds upon itself,” says Anne Owens, who knows of other Chipotle devotees through blogs that round up pictures of fan photos. “We’re among this strange underbelly of Chipotle-obsessed weirdos, and we love our kind. I feel like that doesn’t happen for McDonald’s.”

Her friends have tried to get her to stop eating at the restaurant.

That won’t work. Provide information, let people decide for themselves.

And here’s another lost cause, Johnny Cash, who today in 1968, played a show, which was recorded for his forthcoming live album at Folsom Prison.

Are you sure that produce is safe? Are you sure?

The observed seasonality of foodborne disease suggests that climatic conditions play a role and that changes in the climate may affect the presence of pathogens.

lettuceHowever, it is hard to determine whether this effect is direct or whether it works indirectly through other factors, such as farm management.

This study aimed to identify the climate and management variables that are associated with the contamination (presence and concentration) of leafy green vegetables with E. coli. This study used data about E. coli contamination from 562 leafy green vegetables (lettuce and spinach) samples taken between 2011 and 2013 from 23 open-field farms in Belgium, Brazil, Egypt, Norway, and Spain. Mixed-effect logistic and linear regression models were used to study the statistical relationship between the dependent and independent variables. Climate variables and agricultural management practices together had a systematic influence on E. coli presence and concentration. The variables important for E. coli presence included the minimum temperature of the sampling day (odds ratio = 1.47), region, and application of inorganic fertilizer. The variables important for concentration (R 2 = 0.75) were the maximum temperature during the 3 days before sampling and the region. Temperature had a stronger influence (had a significant parameter estimate and the highest R 2) than did management practices on E. coli presence and concentration. Region was a variable that masked many management variables, including rainwater, surface water, manure, inorganic fertilizer, and spray irrigation. Climate variables had a positive relationship with E. coli presence and concentration.

Temperature, irrigation water type, fertilizer type, and irrigation method should be systematically considered in future studies of fresh produce safety. 

Impacts of climate and management variables on the contamination of preharvest leafy greens with Escherichia coli

Journal of Food Protection, January 2016, No. 1, pp. 4-178, pp. 17-29(13) DOI:

Cheng Liu, Nynke Hofstra, Eelco Franz

Cross-contamination: Reno eatery tied to E. coli outbreak closing

A Reno cafe and grocery store that was tied to an E. coli outbreak is closing its doors.

Twisted Fork restaurant in south RenoReno Provisions will operate for a final time Sunday with everything left marked down by 50 percent.

Chef and owner Mark Estee announced the closure on his Facebook page.

Health officials say a dessert manufactured and sold there was what caused customers at the Twisted Fork restaurant to become ill in October.

They say there were at least 21 confirmed or probable cases of E. coli.

A couple is currently suing Reno Provisions for $10,000 over the outbreak.

Estee tells the Reno Gazette-Journal that he plans to convert part of the property into a casual dining restaurant.

Estee says he was already losing money before the E. coli incidents.