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.



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