An epidemic of high-profile contaminations that plagued 2015 reached a tipping point late in the year, when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention determined that the source of more than 500 documented illnesses stemming from Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants will likely never be known.
Chipotle’s in-house logistics system did not routinely track source ingredients between farms and individual restaurants. It was a weak link in the supply chain that company officials and the CDC have since acknowledged and addressed in the aftermath of a civil, criminal and public relations crisis.
The infections first appeared in July 2015 across multiple states, including Massachusetts, Colorado, California, Minnesota and most recently in Washington state, where the CDC uncovered a rare strain of E. coli. Three pathogens in all were identified including norovirus, which sickened dozens of Boston College students last summer. Multiple outbreaks occurred in California, sparking a criminal investigation of numerous company executives.
As Chipotle embarks on a campaign to resuscitate the brand, some food industry experts have identified a trend. Like many Mexican restaurants, Chipotle depends on uncooked produce that is difficult to wash effectively. Each Chipotle restaurant also prepares raw meat on-site, which increases the potential for cross-contamination. Similar conditions claimed the demise of Chi-Chi’s in 2003, when tainted green onions resulted in the largest hepatitis A outbreak in U.S. history.
Chipotle officials said they followed food industry safety standards, and by most accounts they did. What many experts are quick to acknowledge, however, is that as supply chains grow increasingly more complex, generally accepted safety standards are becoming obsolete and are no longer enough to avert disaster.