If your brand has anything to do with food, the last place you want it to appear in is the Food Poison Journal. But that’s exactly where the Chipotle Mexican Grill recently found itself, prominently placed in a headline confirming its most recent E. coli outbreak.
Thirty-nine people in Washington and Oregon came down with E. coli O26 after eating at a Chipotle restaurant in late October. Twelve were hospitalized. The source of the outbreak has yet to be verified, but experts suspect tomatoes. Chipotle shuttered 43 stores and tossed all remaining ingredients into the trash, patting itself on the back for its “abundance of caution.”
The problem with this response, though, is that Chipotle—whose defining creed is “food with integrity”—has assured consumers that an “abundance of caution” was integral to its mission from the start. Chipotle’s much-touted cautionary approach has underscored such definitive moves as banning genetically modified organisms and supporting locally sourced produce. Thus the “fast casual” alternative has been able to transform a burrito—as one of its advertisements proclaims—into a “food-culture changing cylinder of deliciousness.”
The heavily marketed measures that Chipotle wants consumers to interpret as evidence of the company’s attention to “caution” often have little to do with food safety—and may even run counter to it.
This kind of empowering rhetoric has served the food chain well. Consumers have practically drooled in appreciation. President Obama has been photographed eating there. The Onion, satirizing the rare loyalty the company inspires, ran a piece in the wake of the E. coli news in which a woman declares, “It’s pathetic what qualifies as an outbreak these days.” The media reliably follows suit. The Huffington Post goes so far as to provide periodic news updating the chain’s menu options. (“Relax, Carnitas Is Back”!)
But the real lesson in this E. coli incident is that Chipotle is confusing an abundance of caution with an abundance of marketing. Presenting itself as an alternative to the industrialized fast-food model has certainly served the chain’s reputation well, not to mention its bottom line. But the company’s focus on such buzzy items as local farms and non-GMOs, while generating the appearance of caution, ultimately distracts us from the more prosaic measures that a fast food (OK, fine, fast casual) chain needs to take in order to be consistently safe—precautions that even the best marketing genius can’t sex up.
In the wake of the E. coli discovery, Chipotle revealed what a few of these dull but necessary measures look like. Consumers were told that stores were now “batch testing ingredients before re-supplying,” “conducting environmental testing in its restaurants,” “conducting additional deep cleaning and full sanitation,” and so on. All fine and good. But Bill Marler, the managing partner of Marler Clark, a food safety law firm, asked the essential question about these measures in a blog post: “Why were you not doing all these things before the E. coli outbreak?”
One possible answer is that Chipotle was too busy designing app games and animated films promoting a trumped-up “real food” revolution led by the humble burrito. As Chipotle is starting to learn, though, this rah-rah approach may finally be experiencing diminishing returns. Leading consumers off the scent of its ersatz precaution while capitalizing on the emotive power of local farms and non-GMO ingredients only lasts as long as consumers buy the narrative. And now, with almost 1,900 Chipotle outlets open for business, and with food safety concerns for the company on the rise, counter-narratives are inevitably starting to emerge.
Craig Hedberg, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Minnesota, told the Wall Street Journal that the Chipotle model might actually be less safe than the traditional fast food system. “A company like McDonald’s tends to work with large scale suppliers that have resources of their own” to monitor for harmful pathogens, he said. But “if you’re working with small, independent farmers, it requires a lot of effort to validate them.”
NPR recently dinged Chipotle for being unable to live up to its promise to serve only antibiotic-free pork. And as for GMOs, there has yet to be a single credible study demonstrating their danger to human health.
The takeaway from all of this is that the heavily marketed measures that Chipotle wants consumers to interpret as evidence of the company’s attention to “caution” often have little to do with food safety—and may even run counter to it.
Chipotle has all the resources to oppose such allegations. It might, for example, defend its non-GMO position as an expression of the precautionary principle: GMOs have not been proven to be dangerous, but one day they might be. But wouldn’t a consistent application of this principle require Chipotle—which, after all, has been dangerous—to spend a precautionary amount of time testing its food before re-opening its 43 closed doors? That is, if Chipotle really thinks that it’s promoting public safety through its application of the precautionary principle to GMOs, which have safely been on the market for 20 years, then should it not apply the same logic to its own products?
Of course, nobody is expecting Chipotle to do such a thing—and for good reason. Chipotle provides a food option that consumers greatly enjoy. It does so in a way that adds value to that food option by appealing to vaguely ideological sentiments about what constitutes “food with integrity.” And, for the vast majority of the time, it accomplishes all this in a way that is overwhelmingly safe. One can only hope that the recent E. coli scare not only encourages Chipotle to trade in the fables of precaution for the real thing, but to trust that its loyal consumers are happy to buy their “cylinder of deliciousness” without the BS.
The Things We Eat is a regular Pacific Standard column from James McWilliams on food, agriculture, and the American diet.