Chipotle’s Real Food Safety Problem

Chipotle’s string of bad luck may not be a food safety problem. It’s something far deeper, and unlikely to improve anytime soon — if ever.

With great fanfare, Chipotle has announced a brand new set of procedures to once and for all stop the stream of food illness outbreaks at its restaurants around the country.  Company executives boast that its actions represent the beginning of the end of its troubles.

There certainly is no shortage of culprits for Chipoltle’s fall from grace. As the fast food purveyor’s image for quality foods deteriorated over the summer and fall of 2015, many outside observers placed the blame on the company’s preference to source ingredients like lettuce, vegetables and the like from local farmers. This was a risky bet, the critics said, because local produce often wasn’t raised and processed with sufficient food safety procedures in place.

That’s largely been debunked, but then a new cause began circulating: Chipoltle’s competitors were sabotaging its supply chain with contaminated product. This, it was claimed, was retribution for Chipoltle’s industry-leading position refusing to use any ingredients that contained genetically modified organisms, or GMO’s.  So far, there’s been no proof of this allegation.

So, what was it? Plain bad luck as the company pleaded; a series of outbreaks that could happen to anyone in the restaurant business. According to the New York Times, Chipoltle pinned the outbreaks on “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.”

Chipoltle might want to reconsider making such a claim. Like virtually all other fast food chains, Chipotle relies on part-time minimum wage workers to assemble the burritos and other menu items along a fast-moving service line in the company’s 2,000 outlets nationwide.  The need for speed, to move hungry customers through the line, and the need for each outlet to maximize sales while minimizing costs, means that employee food safety training will necessarily be a secondary priority.

And there’s little reason to think this will change. The fast food business model is rooted in low-cost labor and unavoidable rapid turnover especially on the “front line,” where employees interact with customers. The data is worth considering.  According to the National Restaurant Association:

The overall turnover rate in the restaurants-and-accommodations* sector was 66.3 percent in 2014, up 10 percentage points from the recent low of 56.6 percent in 2010.

Despite the increase, the turnover rate remains relatively low in historical terms. In 2007, prior to the economic downturn, the turnover rate of the restaurants-and-accommodations sector was 80.9 percent. This was generally on par with turnover in the previous five years (2002-2006), when the annual rate averaged 80 percent.

Training this rapidly changing work force is not only a headache but an aggravating cost factor. The pressure to keep labor costs in line is especially an overriding priority for publicly-held chains, which must satisfy investors each business quarter.

Little wonder, then, that fast food chain workers end up with not much more than a superficial understanding of the basics of food safety, such as proper food temperatures, the presence of harmful food microorganisms, and how food-borne illness can spread.  For many, the warning sign in the bathrooms that “employees must wash their hands” is essentially the extent of their food safety training.

Chipoltle’s turnaround plans don’t specifically mention this problem. The company is focusing on insuring that supplies are carefully washed, safely packaged, and handled with utmost care. All wise and necessary steps.

But until Chipotle and its many competitors can find a way to train their temporary, transitory work force, food illness outbreaks will not be a thing of the past, as Chipotle fervently hopes. Instead, it will be a constant, lurking issue facing the fast food business and its millions of hungry customers.



Is Food Safety Regulation Necessary?

The Food Safety Modernization Act, enacted in 2011 but just now being implemented, would seem at first glance to be the type of federal action that many say hurts the economy and stifles economic growth.

We’ve all heard the complaint (it’s a staple of the Presidential campaign): there’s too much regulation, and business must be freed from oppressive federal rules in order to drive economic growth.

Food safety, however, might be the exception.  Food is the world’s most important commodity, and although safety standards and procedures have dramatically improved from the days of Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair, the very size of the industry from field to table makes a 100% safe food supply an aspirational goal, but far from a reality.

The new food safety act (known by its acronym, FSMA) codifies into federal law sweeping new regulations across the multi-billion dollar food channel. Perhaps most important, FSMA unveils a new philosophy of regulation. Instead of reacting to food contamination outbreaks after-the-fact, which has been standard operating procedure for decades, FSMA seeks to prevent outbreaks by placing more responsibilities on food companies to manage their businesses in accordance with the new regulations.

Peanut ButterHere’s a specific example. One of the new regulatory initiatives under FSMA requires food manufacturers and processors to undertake a thorough and detailed hazard analysis of any and all possible weak points in their production system, from machinery lubricants to temperature controls to safe and sanitary packaging protocols. Once these analyses are completed, they must be maintained on premises, regularly updated and documented.

Failure to implement these steps (or to ignore them) could result in fines and — something new — criminal liabilities for company CEOs and other officers.

Needless to say, FSMA represents sweeping change, and change almost always brings on anxiety and stress. Before FSMA was enacted four years ago, it was heavily lobbied by various food industry trade groups and firms, and the pushback continued as implementation began. Yet it is the law, and as a food consumer, we should consider FSMA as a good incentive for the industry to make food production and distribution as safe as possible.

Of course, there are skeptics, and the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees FSMA, is nothing if not deliberate (i.e. glacial) in moving forward with implementation. Yet to those critics who denounce regulation, two recent food-borne illness incidents sadly demonstrate the need for close supervision of food production. In one case, a Georgia peanut butter company knowingly distributed product contaminated with salmonella, resulting in numerous cases of illness and nine deaths. (Two of the company’s top officials were prosecuted and sentened to 20+ years in prison). In another, an ice cream producer shipped thousands of gallons of ice cream with minute amounts of the dangerous Listeria microbe. Hundreds of consumers fell ill; three died.

America’s food supply is overwhelmingly safe. But it can always be safer. With FSMA, the food industry is under the spotlight to make food safety a top management priority, or face some rather unpalatable legal and brand consequences.


Back Where I Started

For many years beginning in 1982, I worked at The Kroger Co. as corporate director of public relations. One of my top priorities was handling crisis communications during food recalls — those involving Kroger’s own manufactured items or national brand products sold in Kroger food stores. Each incident was vastly different, yet there were enough similarities that when I left Kroger to start my own business, in 1998, I took with me a treasure trove of experience in the always topical subject of food safety.

My expertise lay fallow for some time as I worked in other areas.  Earlier this year, I was contacted by an old Kroger colleague with whom I worked closely on many of those recalls.  Gale Prince is widely known in the food industry and government circles as a leading expert on the causes of food contamination. He’s been honored many times over the years for his dedication to promoting safe food handling techniques, food safety training, and manufacturing standards.

What he didn’t have time for was letting the world know about his work. That’s where I come in.  Gale and I have created a joint venture to work together on food safety issues.  His company, SAGE Food Safety Consultants, and my agency, Bernish Communications, LLC, now offer clients our combined talents in the food safety arena.

The timing of our collaboration couldn’t be better. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is implementing new regulations under the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 (better known as FSMA, pronounced “fizz-ma”). The legislation, once fully in place, has the capability of transforming food safety by placing more responsibility on food manufacturers and processors to prevent recalls from happening in the first place. The FDA, along with the Justice Department, is holding the industry’s feet to the fire; recently (as you may have read) the government meted out 29 and 20 year prison sentences to two brothers, Stewart and Michael Parnell, who knowingly shipped peanut butter contaminated with salmonella bacteria. Nine people died and dozens more were made very ill from eating the peanut butter. In years past, the government was more likely to issue fines for such gross violations of the law. This time, it appears the FDA and DOJ are not turning a bureaucratic blind eye to blatant misdeeds.

As I said, food safety is a perennial issue — it never really goes away. Our nation’s food supply is very safe, but it could be safer. Ditto for the rest of the world, whose products are increasingly available on U.S. supermarket shelves. FSMA, hopefully, will enhance food safety even more, but accidents and willful lawbreaking are inevitable in such a vast and varied industry.

When that happens, chances are Gale and I will be on the scene.


Not the End of Journalism

The untimely death of New York Times reporter & columnist David Carr felt like a death’s knell for the bygone days of tough-minded journalism.

But his passing by no means represents the end of en era.

Carr seemed to fit the stereotype of a Damon Runyan-like character who smoke, drank and typed his stories while snarling at copy boys in crowded, frantic newsrooms.

He was something like that, at least early in his career.  Yet he was in every sense a modern, contemporary and relevant observer. Carr wrote often and perceptively about sweeping changes in the media, from corporate ownership of media properties to the impact of social media. Yet he also used social media to leverage his audience; he didn’t reject competition for audience, but welcomed it.

And about corporate media properties ownership, Carr took on the issue like a dog with a steak. He didn’t let his highly visible position at the Times in any way dilute his willingness to report — with frankness and acerbic wit — how such a trend threatened independent, professional journalism.

He was by all acounts a singular personality. Beset with drug and alcohol problems in his early years, Carr struggled to find his way in life, and newspaper work (and his family) became his salvation. His early struggles helped shape an attitude that didn’t suffer fools, abhorred “truthiness” and political bloviation, and relished precise language and the power of the declarative sentence.  At Boston University, Carr was an inspiring lecturer. He taught aspiring journalists about how to write and how to approach officialdom — whether business, political or governmental — by being tough-minded, assertive and skeptical.

His death at 58 shocked and saddened his many friends and colleagues at the Times and elsewhere. He would surely take some satisfaction in knowing that young people who read his obituary might be inspired to emulate his professional life. That’s something of a priority, if journalism is to survive.

“I love the current future of journalism we are living through and care desperately about getting my students ready to prosper in this new place,” Carr once said.  It’s a fitting epitaph.


The Problems of New Apps

Uber, the the car-on-demand transportation service, is attempting nothing less than to take over the world’s urban taxicab business. Not surprisingly, this has certain people, including cabbies, pretty upset, and the service is now embroiled in controversy.

Uber’s introduction underscores the dramatic transition underway in journalism today. Not only are there many new reporters appearing on the scene who haven’t necessarily been trained in the field. It’s also increasingly obvious that content — what is being covered — is also changing, as the mainstream media and new media all pursue the new buzzword of reporting: relevance.

This trend comes into clearer focus in news coverage of technology, especially in consumer-facing applications that provide new ways of doing old things, from using a slide rule to hailing a cab. Most new apps initially receive glowing, enthusiastic reviews by the business and trade press, reflecting a mindset that tends to accept that whatever is new or different is superior to the old. It’s only when consumers and affected businesses and traditional service providers begin pushing back that the media starts raising questions about the efficacy of the new product or service.

Some background: Uber was an idea hatched by two startup entrepreneurs who thought that waiting for a cab was a ridiculous waste of time. They concluded that with not much investment beyond a new app, they could disrupt the traditional taxicab business by  crowd sourcing rides in cities and towns via a mobile app which could rustle up a car and driver almost immediately, and for a much lower fare. Voila! A new business was born.

As is typically the case with all clever new apps, early adopters jumped on Uber, which started operations on the fly, making up rules and procedures as it grew and expanded.  Its stated aim was to supplant traditional taxi services, which were regulated by city governments that required cabbies to be licensed and bonded. Uber’s founders, in effect, blew off those regulations. The firm became emboldened as more customers started using Uber (and other new arrivals on the scene), even as cab companies howled and city governments became wary.

Media coverage of Uber, at least initially, was noticeable by the obvious enthusiasm of articles and broadcasts, notably in the business media. “Hey, here’s a neat new way to get around town” was pretty much the standard tone of coverage. When problems began popping up, such as concerns about who, exactly were the drivers offering their cars as taxis, or how consumers could be protected against being ripped off, the enthusiasm began to wane — to a degree. As problems mounted, Uber was described as going through growing pains, and that things would be sorted out eventually, ushering in a transformation of a basic mode of transport for getting from point A to B.

Uber has continued to expand, but news coverage is rapidly becoming less forgiving. With criticial scrutiny rising, one Uber executive, in a fit of pique, responded with kindergarten anger. The exec speculated publicly that Uber critics in the media should be trashed via orchestrated character assassination. Needless to say, the business press hasn’t taken kindly to this idea, which — in fairness — the executive has recanted. As it happens, the outburst came in the midst of a Uber PR charm offensive campaign with the media to improve its image.

There things stand for the moment. Uber’s fate remains unsettled.  Local governments have banned the service outright in some cities, and restricted it in others. Taxi businesses have lobbied strenuously to protect their franchises and, in many places, they have managed to stem Uber’s aggressive expansion plans. Interestingly, however, Uber users are rallying around the service, arguing that negative articles are the result of taxicab business propaganda and, therefore, without merit.

To me, the more fundamental question is whether the new corps of reporters and editors, already caught up in the fervor of application-guided lifestyel, blinded by the sizzle of new ideas, resulting in articles that are largely adulatory and enthusiastic rather than objective and balanced? In the case of Uber, the mainstream as well as tech press largely gave the concept a free pass until issues arose by disgruntled users and suddenly displaced interests.

That leads to perhaps an even deeper question, linked to the transformative changes in the current media landscape. What, exactly, is news in the current environment?

Across the mainstream media, publishers and broadcasters are aggressively choosing subjects to cover based on page views, that is, by relevance and topicality, rather than what is important and substantial (although the two are not mutually exclusive). Additionally, journalism today has locked into a specific target audience, the 25 to 45 age demogrphic, precisely those most likely to be on top of, and amenable to, the newest fad or trend. In other words, today’s journalism industry seems predisposed to cover what interests their target demographic, rather than the larger and more amorphous general public.

Here, in a newsroom memo from Detroit Free Press Editor and Publisher Paul Anger, is as good a summary of one publishing firm’s (Gannett’s) emerging editorial strategy:

First, we’ll be doing more staff training on metrics — details to come soon — and how to plan content for different platforms and audiences. How to analyze traffic, maximize it, learn from what performs well and what doesn’t. We need to emphasize, more and more, reaching readers in the 25-45 age demographic.”

If this is the new direction of news coverage, stories about companies like Uber are going to appear more often, because they are more relevant to the targeted demographic. This out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new philosophy may indeed generate more page views, Facebook likes and Twitter messages. The danger is that it will turn off older news consumers who may feel increasingly marginalized. Older readers and viewers, it should be noted, access news media far more than younger generations. Is the news media, desparate in to remain relevant to younger consumers (and advertisers) turning its back on their core customers? In the case of Uber, much of the media’s criticism may, in fact, not be reaching those most likely to use the app.

Who, then, will provide the necessary background and objectivity about all the new stuff coming along, and whether the promise of new, user friendly technology is in fact better than whatever it is replacing?

The answer, right now, is as uncertain as Uber’s unsettled future.