Chipotle Mexican Grill can’t seem to catch a break lately.
On the heels of a high-profile E. coli outbreak that sickened dozens, this week 80 Boston College students who ate at the burrito chain fell ill with what health officials reported was a stomach virus.
In total, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified more than 50 cases in nine states linked to the fast-casual restaurant as of Dec. 4. The outbreak has been a severe blow for Chipotle, which is expected to report negative same-store sales for its fourth quarter for the first time since it became a public company in 2006.
In response, the Denver-based company has pledged to become an industry leader in food safety as they announce the aggressive actions under way to prevent future outbreaks: Just as suppliers are asked to meet certain standards under the chain’s Food With Integrity mission, produce suppliers will now be held to higher standards in terms of food safety.
“There will be robust testing procedures that will need to be in place for all of our suppliers, whether large or small,” said Steve Ells, Chipotle chairman, founder and co-CEO, to Nation’s Restaurant News.
But because it’s nearly impossible to test every tomato, the chain is taking additional operation steps, Ells added.
For example, Chipotle has begun dicing tomatoes in a commissary, putting them through a sanitary kill step to eliminate pathogens, and hermetically sealing them for delivery to restaurants. Similar procedures have been put in place for ingredients like cilantro and lettuce, which are higher-risk items because they are not cooked.
Ells assures that using a commissary will not degrade quality.
“You could bring fresh cilantro right out of the field to restaurants and wash it there. I don’t think it will be any better than washing the cilantro in the commissary. It’s a really efficient way to do that, and it’s sanitary.”
Jack Hartung, Chipotle’s chief financial officer, warned that the investment in food safety will be costly.
“It will be an investment,” he said. “We have to act with a sense of urgency, and that means we’ll probably do it inefficiently.”
To ensure that the protocol will be longstanding and make an impact, the company may have to raise menu prices, but those changes will not likely be considered until 2017.
Chipotle also has a marketing campaign in the works to encourage customers back into their stores.
“As soon as we’re confident that we’re no longer facing a food safety problem and that this won’t happen again, then we’ll do what we did after the reopening of the restaurants in the Pacific Northwest, which was full-page open letters in newspapers, as well as some critically placed interviews, to basically say, ‘Hey, this is over. This is what we’ve done. And now, moving forward, we invite you back into our restaurants,” said Monty Moran, co-CEO of Chipotle.