When customers leave your restaurant, you want them talking about your amazing food and service…not driving the porcelain bus! Chipotle knows about this far too well. Mild to violent gastrointestinal distress from E. Coli, Salmonella, or norovirus leaves more than a bad taste in your customers’ mouths. Foodborne illness is not a recipe for success!

Chipotle’s food safety issues began in the Northwest, causing the temporary closure of 43 outlets. At first glance, the supply chain appeared to be the primary issue. Yet Chipotle seemed unable to determine what food products (presumably produce) and which suppliers were delivering tainted product.

Then 140 reported cases of illness were linked to a Chipotle in Boston. Then it was norovirus in Southern California. Then customers in the heartland and in Canada were reporting food poisoning, culminating in class-action lawsuits and a federal criminal investigation.

As more and more customers were seeking treatment for Salmonella, E. Coli, and norovirus after eating at Chipotle, it was clear the outbreaks were not just “isolated incidents” but a systemic problem. Chipotle’s sales began falling off with fourth-quarter same store sales dropping nearly 11%. And Chipotle’s stock went from a high of $624 in November 2015 down to $404 in mid-January 2016.

To make public perception worse, Chipotle’s CEO, Steve Ells, was slow in releasing a statement to the press. “From the beginning, all of our food safety programs have met or exceeded industry standards. But recent incidents, an E. coli outbreak that sickened 52 people and a norovirus outbreak that sickened approximately 140 people at a single Chipotle restaurant in Boston, have shown us that we need to do better, much better,” Ells said in his mea culpa. Yes, Mr. Ells, Chipotle can and must do much better!

For restaurant owners, studying Chipotle’s mistakes and missteps provides a bevy of food safety lessons.

Lessons from Chipotle’s Food Safety Crisis

Lesson #1: Know your supply chain

Supply chain management can be especially tricky for a brand like Chipotle that prides itself in “locally sourced” products. For a chain with vast geographical reach, multiple suppliers are used regionally. Just because food product is local or sustainable doesn’t mean it’s free of pathogens. E. Coli can enter the food chain through meat, dairy, raw vegetables, and fruits.

Restaurant Finance interviewed food safety attorney William Marler, who said “a lot of times what happens is you get these big chains make a contract with their supplier and it all becomes an issue of squeezing down on price, which is understandable, but you’re only as safe as the products coming into your restaurants.”

Saving a bit of money on the front end through your supply chain is not worth the savings if you’re putting your customers at risk!

Lesson #2: Food handling practices

“Anytime health officials are dealing with food contaminated with pathogens such as E. Coli, Salmonella, and norovirus it can be serious to the public if immediate action is not taken. The most effective way to prevent food poisoning incidents in the foodservice business is to develop a food safety culture within the company. Daily audit or inspection should be done to identify food safety infractions and to correct all infractions ASAP, as this can reduce food poisoning risk,” says former Public Health Inspector, Jim Chan.

General food safety tips that reduce contamination and sickness:

  • Always store meat and perishables at the correct temperatures.
  • All restaurant employees must abide by proper and frequent hand-washing. This means washing with soap and hot water (at least 100 degrees).
  • Cooking and storage surfaces must be cleaned and sanitized frequently. This includes cutting boards, tabletops, containers, and all utensils from knives to ice scoops.

Lesson #3: If you’re sick, stay home!

One of the class-action lawsuits, along with the federal investigation, revolves around a sick kitchen manager at a Simi Valley, California, Chipotle location. The employee was said to have “gastrointestinal symptoms,” yet was still working and handling food! Dozens of customers were diagnosed with norovirus, which is transmitted by fecally contaminated food or water and spreads easily from person to person.

Norovirus is spread through the fecal-oral route, meaning that you get it by ingesting fecal matter from another person," according to Scientific America. "You can get it by shaking hands with an infected person who didn’t wash their hands after using the bathroom. But most likely, you would get it by eating food prepared by someone who hasn’t washed his or her hands. You can also become infected putting your hand in your mouth after touching contaminated surfaces such as doorknobs, where the virus can probably be infectious for days."

When you hear the words “food” and “fecal” in the same sentence, it makes you gag a little, right?

“Food safety starts with frontline food handlers all the way to the CEO, and everyone must take their responsibilities seriously all the time. You don’t wait until an outbreak like [Chipotle’s] to remind everyone about food safety, as it’s too late and people are already sick,’’ Chan says. Restaurants must have a firm policy against sick employee coming to work. Working paid sick days into your restaurant’s compensation plan is worth it! Not only will you have more loyal employees and less turnover, you avoid risking your customers’ health and your restaurant’s reputation.

Lesson #4: Training

As staffing continues to be a problem in the restaurant space, staying on top of training new employees is an endless task…but imperative! Employees must have a firm grasp of personal hygiene, cross-contamination risks, sanitation, temperature control, and allergens. The simplest way to train new and existing restaurant staff is to have them certified through a program like ServSafe’s food handling and safety curriculum.

Lesson #5: Come clean with your customers and inspectors

If your restaurant discovers a foodborne illness outbreak, the sooner you address your clientele, the better! If you’re a big outfit like Chipotle, an official press release should be disseminated immediately. If you’re an independent restaurant owner, you can speak to your customers directly through social media.

As a restaurant owner, you have a better shot at damage control and avoiding bad press when you come clean with your constituency from the start. Be transparent! Communicate your apology and concern for your customers. And, most importantly, communicate the specific steps your restaurant will take to avoid food safety issues going forward.

“During an outbreak investigation, public health officials need to know detailed information on how food is being handled from transport, production, storage, preparation, cooking, to serving. This usually starts with a records review of all food items consumed by the people that became ill in order to determine the cause of the outbreak. However, if an operator is not releasing all records to the investigators or giving misleading information, this can hinder the outcome of the investigation,” says Chan.

“Once a potential site is identified, inspection focuses on temperature control of food, sanitation of food preparation areas, safe food handling practices, health status, and food safety knowledge of food handlers to identify food safety infractions that most likely caused the outbreak. Officials may take appropriate food and environmental samples for lab examination to isolate and identify the pathogen(s)."

For more food safety and ice safety resources, please visit: http://www.easyice.com/category/food-safety-ice-safety/.

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