Chipotle’s CEO Steve Ells has embarked on an apology tour: “The fact that anyone has become ill eating at Chipotle is completely unacceptable to me and I am deeply sorry,” he wrote in an open letter this week. (It ran as an ad in the Seattle Times, where I read it.)
This wasn’t his restaurant’s first reaction to its latest food-safety fiasco. Earlier this month, after Chipotle sickened even more of its customers, it chose to declare war on the Centers for Disease Control rather than examine its own standards of health and cleanliness.
The CDC’s reporting methods are “unorthodox and unusual,” complained Mark Crumpacker, a senior official at the company.
You know what’s unorthodox and unusual? Serving food that has made scores of people sick, from coast to coast, all year long—and then pointing a finger of blame at an agency whose offense apparently is to have investigated the extent of the harm.
My full sympathy goes out to the innocent victims who just wanted a decent meal at the Mexican-food chain. People who visit restaurants shouldn’t have to worry about contamination. Imagine placing this order: “I’ll have a steak burrito with rice, beans, and cheese—but hold the E. coli!”
At the same time, I can’t help but think: This couldn’t have happened to a more arrogant company.
Chipotle has made a habit of demonizing not only CDC officials who monitor food safety, but also American farmers like me who grow genetically modified crops.
Yet on its website, Chipotle—which boasts of selling “food with integrity”—spreads lies about GM foods. It seeks to stoke the fears of consumers for the sake of competitive advantage, claiming that scientists have not reached a consensus on the safety of GM crops or food made with GM ingredients. This is plainly false, as a recent Pew Research Center survey of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science demonstrates.
Despite this, Chipotle continues to slander ordinary farmers who engage in conventional practices. Last year, the corporation even funded a smear campaign called “Farmed and Dangerous,” a series of satiric videos that aimed to mock mainstream U.S. agriculture.
Instead of bankrolling such guerilla-marketing propaganda, Chipotle should have devoted more of its resources to improving its own lax health standards.
Last summer, the chain spread norovirus and salmonella to more than 140 people in California and Minnesota. Then, in October and November, Chipotle infected more than 50 people with the E. coli bacteria in nine states, including 20 victims who were hospitalized. The company shuttered 43 stores in Oregon and Washington State.
Now comes the latest crisis—a big norovirus outbreak in Boston, affecting scores of people, most of them students at Boston College. These young people probably just wanted a break from cafeteria food. Because they ate at Chipotle, however, they’re struggling with nausea, vomiting, and muscle pains at the very worst time of the semester, when term-paper deadlines arrive and final exams loom.
The good news is that food in the United States never has been safer to eat, due in large part to the concerted efforts of the people who handle food as it moves from farm to fork, as well as regulators at the CDC and elsewhere. When we spot a problem, it’s usually an isolated incident that’s rapidly contained.
What we see at Chipotle, however, is a pattern of abuse. Last week, health officials temporarily closed a Chipotle restaurant in Seattle in an incident unrelated to the E. coli outbreak.
Rather than immediately acting with a full measure of humility, Chipotle’s Crumpacker chose to whine at a press conference about how the CDC discloses information to the public. He accused the CDC of releasing information in a way that makes problems appear worse than they really are.
Then co-CEO Monty Moran accused journalists of spreading fear. “Because the media likes to write sensational headlines, we’ll probably see when somebody sneezes that they’re going to say, ‘Ah, it’s E. coli from Chipotle,’ for a little bit of time,” he said. “That’s unfortunate.”
From Chipotle’s standpoint, everybody else is always at fault, from farmers like me who grow GM crops to CDC officials who try to police serial food-safety violators to reporters who convey the facts about the company’s failures.
I don’t know if Chipotle will recover from this disaster, but I do know this: It should start telling the complete truth about everything, from what happens on my farm to what happens inside its own restaurants.
Mark Wagoner is a third generation farmer in Walla Walla County, Washington where they raise alfalfa seed. Mark volunteers as a Board member for Truth About Trade & Technology / Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).