Health

Chipotle Is Closing All Its Restaurants February 8 To Focus On Food Safety. Will It Work?

CREDIT: AP Photo/Stephen Brashear

A Chipotle Mexican Grill employee prepares food in Seattle.

Chipotle is trying to reboot. The embattled burrito chain announced earlier this week that it will close nearly 2,000 of its restaurants for a day to train employees on food safety, after suffering almost year-long outbreaks of E. Coli, Salmonella and norovirus that sickened hundreds of people in stores across the country. But as much as the restaurant’s move is to repair trust with its customer base, the one-day hiatus also signals that Chipotle — and other restaurants — have to go back to basics.

“We are hosting a national team meeting to thank our employees for their hard work through this difficult time, discuss some of the food safety changes we are implementing, and answer questions from employees,” Chipotle spokesperson told ThinkProgress in an email.

The burrito chain wouldn’t elaborate on what changes were being made to better prevent outbreaks in the future. But did note that its restaurants are expected to open at 3 p.m., Feb. 8, following the meeting. Media reports have also cited the stores will open with the possibility of free food as an extra incentive for customers to come in; Chipotle upped the amount of free food given to customers as part of a larger campaign to win back public favor.

But it’s going to take more than free food and a day of food safety training for Chipotle to get back to where it was in the public eye.

“Training has got to be an ongoing process,” said Robert Buchanan, a University of Maryland, College Park professor and director of the college’s Center for Food Safety and Security Systems. “There’s no way of absolutely guaranteeing [a restaurant] won’t have any incidence of foodborne disease. Getting one person sick every so often is bad enough,” Buchanan said. “You want to make it a rare event. Certainly when you have four outbreaks traced back to a single chain of restaurants, it’s not a rare event.”

Chipotle has suffered at least four outbreaks: two national outbreaks with E. Coli, two associated with norovirus in California, and one bout of Salmonella poisoning in its Minnesota restaurants.

“With the E.Coli [infections] there’s a strong possibility that the outbreaks could have been due to a contaminated ingredient,” at the distribution centers or food source, Buchanan said.

E. Coli is a gut bacteria that lives in mammals’ intestines, and food borne infections are usually linked back to an animal source, either domestic or wild, but has also been traced to humans. To cause illness, the bacteria contaminates the food — meat, dairy, or produce — but isn’t inactivated through cooking, Buchanan said.

The norovirus, however, comes only from humans, typically found in vomit or fecal matter, and lives on the skin. A foodhandler could be taking care of a sick child or family member and carry it on their skin, Buchanan said. Even if a worker wasn’t recently ill with the virus, he or she could be an asymptomatic carrier and contaminate the food if it comes in contact with the skin. “I’m assuming no one is vomiting on the food being served,” Buchanan joked. “The norovirus can be airborne but usually after someone vomits in the area. It survives on surfaces, skin, clothing, etc.”

But it’s possible that no one will ever know the true cause or source, he said.

The FDA and CDC have been investigating Chipotle’s E. Coli outbreaks in nine states and traced them to a single strain of the bacteria. The Justice Department launched a probe into the norovirus cases that infected 200 customers in Simi Valley, California.

Shutting down to dedicate a day to training is likely what Chipotle needs to show the public and employees that its taking customers’ health and safety seriously. But the proof will be in the food. Chipotle wouldn’t elaborate on what food safety techniques it would stress or certification programs it would use during its February all-staff meeting. The company dropped its membership with the National Restaurant Association, the industry’s largest advocacy group, ahead of the 2015 outbreaks, and no longer uses the group’s ServSafe food safety certification program for its managers.

Most food borne organisms can be killed through the cooking process, proper food washing and handling including frequently sanitizing workstations, and good hygiene. Food safety, Buchanan said, isn’t “rocket science, it’s following tried and true rules and paying attention to them…In Chipotle’s situation, you have a lot of food, a lot of room for cross contamination. There’s a lot of hand handling.”