With an E. coli outbreak spanning two states, 43 restaurants, and a growing number of hospital bound customers, Chipotle is facing one of their largest problems yet. Though it has been isolated to two North Western states, this is the kind of event that could potentially cause widespread distrust among consumers.
E. Coli 026:H11
Enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) 026:H11, the apparent strain of E. coli found among ill Chipotle customers, is a pathogenic bacterium. Such bacteria grow rapidly in the "Danger Zone," a temperature range between 40°F and 140°F, doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes. The pathogen is invisible with no taste, smell, or change in appearance of the food. The incubation period can range from three to eight days, but averages at three to four days. Symptoms of the diseases caused by EHEC include abdominal cramps and hemorrhagic colitis (bloody diarrhea) that may further lead to fever and vomiting (1).
The source of E. Coli 026 is difficult to trace, however it is transmitted primarily through consumption of raw or undercooked ground beef, unpasteurized milk and juice, and contaminated sprouts and vegetables (2). The source of widespread contamination is undetermined, but at this time it is believed to be tied to Chipotle’s produce.
According to reports from CBS News (3), as of this past Wednesday, health officials have been conducting research attempting to isolate the source of the bacteria with cooperation of Chipotle. It often takes a show of response to regain that trust. As Chipotle’s Chairman Steve Ells asserts, their public show of response is the closing of 43 restaurants despite their belief that the problem stems from an isolated group of restaurants. While some experts have lauded Chipotle’s commitment to finding the sources of contamination, the issue lies in prevention. Prevention is the difference in enjoying consumer trust versus having to regain consumer trust.
The Consequences of Distrust Among Consumers
In a time like this, as Chipotle consumers, we question the process. We implicitly give trust to any business with television commercials, a brick and mortar storefront and all of the other intangibles a national company may have. In all likelihood, Chipotle has systems in place to ensure the utmost level of quality. In this case, Chipotle, who is well known for using locally supplied ingredients, has inherently broken trust because of a failure in their system. Any lapse in judgement, any breakdown and any corner cut can lead to a loss in customer trust and push them to go elsewhere. According to a recent article from Business Insider in July, 43% of Chipotle’s customers are repeat visitors(4), quite a large percentage. An even larger percentage is the 57% of their customers that are more casual. That creates a very delicate situation in terms of upsetting consumer trust. More than half of Chipotle’s customers are more delicate in terms of giving their business to the national food chain. That 57%, when considering the amount of publicity this E. coli outbreak has received, can and will likely take their business to comparable restaurants at mealtime. Again, while this situation is fairly isolated to the Northwest and to those suppliers, the onus in the consumer’s eyes ultimately falls on Chipotle as a national company.
While Chipotle is taking appropriate measurements to control the incidence and looking to positively move forward, an outbreak with such weight can occur in any kitchen. The prevention of food-borne illness requires control measures at all stages of the food chain, from agricultural production on the farm to processing, manufacturing, and preparation of the food. There are a few major steps everyone can take to prevent the likelihood of an outbreak(5):
- Employees must wash their hands, counters, cutting boards, and utensils thoroughly after they have been in contact with raw meat.
- Meat should be cooked thoroughly so that the center of the food reaches at least 160°F.
- Produce must be washed carefully, especially if they are eaten raw.
- Vegetables and fruits should be washed and peeled.
- Store produce and raw meat below 40°F.
Temperature is an obvious agent in the control and elimination of E.coli, and many other food-borne bacteria. Proper storage and routine temperature checks reduce the risk of widespread illness and ultimately brand distrust. Our FreshSense system provides location specific monitoring (fridges, freezers, lowboys) with automatic updates to you if there are any unwanted temperature changes. Ensuring your fridges stay below 40°F can be the difference between a nice lunch and a food-borne company nightmare. So hey Chipotle, when the dust settles, how about you give us a call?