Chipotle’s “Abundance of Caution” Should Include Food Safety


“When it comes to our food, genetically modified ingredients don’t make the cut,” says the website of Chipotle, the restaurant chain.

You know what does seem to make the cut? E. coli, the bacteria that can cause cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, and even death.

At least that appears to be the case following an E. coli outbreak among Chipotle customers. More than 40 people have fallen sick after eating at Chipotle in the Pacific Northwest, including 14 who were hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The company closed 43 stores in the region.

Authorities say that the problems are probably worse than reported, due to people who became sick but failed to connect their maladies to having eaten at Chipotle. “The number of people made ill by this outbreak is likely more than identified,” said a news release from the Oregon Health Authority last week.

Chipotle boasts that it’s “committed to sourcing the very best ingredients we can find.” Unfortunately, the very worst ingredients made it into Chipotle’s food—and we still don’t know the exact source of the E. coli.

This new incident comes on the heels of two troubling events last summer, when Chipotle suffered from outbreaks of norovirus in California and salmonella in Minnesota, sickening more than 140 people.

These episodes have delivered a hard blow to Chipotle, which likes to claim that it serves “food with integrity.” It recently became the first national restaurant chain to swear off GMO ingredients.

We now see that despite Chipotle’s sanctimony and sloganeering, the chain is more concerned with attacking GMOs and the conventional farmers who grow them than with the safety of its own customers.

This is what happens when political correctness and aggressive marketing trump sound science.

Before going any further, let’s have a public-service announcement about the immediate crisis. Anyone who has eaten at Chipotle in the last month and has endured intestinal problems should stop reading this column and see a medical doctor. This is the advice of Marisa D’Angeli, who specializes in communicable diseases at the Washington State Department of Health, according to the Seattle Times.

E. coli poses a special threat to children and the elderly. The worst cases of contamination can kill, though no deaths have been linked to Chipotle so far.

In the near future, we’ll need a second public-service announcement. It should come from Chipotle, and it should involve an apology for lying about the safety of GMOs.

“We don’t believe the scientific community has reached a consensus on the long-term implications of widespread GMO cultivation and consumption,” says Chipotle’s website.

This is just plain wrong.

Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center surveyed members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on a range of subjects—and 88 percent of them agreed that it’s “safe to eat genetically modified foods.”

This is the very definition of a consensus.

Chipotle has the right to refuse to serve food with GMO ingredients. It does not enjoy the right to lie about what scientists believe—or to use its assaults on conventional agriculture as a distraction to cover up its own health violations.

Scientists at government agencies and universities around the world have studied GMOs for decades with rigor. We know with certainty that they’ve never caused anyone to hiccup, let alone put more than a dozen people in the hospital, as Chipotle’s neglect of basic food safety in the Pacific Northwest has done.

On its corporate website, Chipotle is posting updates on the E. coli outbreak. Curiously, the company uses one phrase over and over: “out of an abundance of caution.” It has shut down restaurants “out of an abundance of caution,” it has discarded food “out of an abundance of caution,” and so on.

An abundance of caution is the exact opposite of what Chipotle has practiced. The next time you have a craving for a burrito, think about that—and be sure to pick your restaurant with an abundance of caution.

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.

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Mark Wagoner

Mark Wagoner

Mark Wagoner is a third generation family farmer in southeast Washington State where they grow alfalfa seed for four major seed companies. Relying on the alkali bee, a native ground nesting bee, and leafcutter bees for pollination, Mark works with the National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to insure that safe and effective insecticides are available for use during bee flight.

Mark volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network and numerous other boards addressing water and land use issues. He has been appointed to the Washington State Department of Ecology Walla Walla Valley 2050 Committee, a planning group to improve water availability in the Valley. He works diligently to develop and implement coexistence strategies for producing conventional, organic and genetically enhanced alfalfa.

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