In a January 2015 Supply Chain Matters commentary, we praised Mexican food restaurant chain Chipotle for adherence to established food quality standards and taking decisive action when a regional supplier of pork was not adhering to humane animal standards. According to Chipotle at that time, a routine audit discovered that Chipotle logothis regional supplier violated declared humane-based standards for the housing of pigs with access to the outdoors.  The chain suspended its Carnitas menu offering in upwards of one-third of its 1700 establishments until a substitute supplier adhering to Chipotle quality standards could provide new supply.

At the time, business and general media were quick to feature headlines of this chain’s decisive action. The chain would stand behind its stated Mission as: Serving Food with Integrity. A spokesperson indicated to media outlets: “This is fundamentally an animal welfare decision, and is rooted in our unwillingness to compromise our standards where animal welfare is concerned.”

We at Supply Chain Matters  stated at the time: “One has to admire a company that is willing to adhere to its supply standards in spite of the consequences, especially in the light of the realities of mass food production and of Wall Street’s short-term focus on profits.”

Supply Chain Matters is not of this admiration at this time.

Most readers are probably now well aware, the restaurant chain is struggling with its worse crisis ever involving food safety and quality which has resulted in hundreds of sickened people who all ate at a Chipotle establishments across various U.S. states.

Initial reported incidents began in August when 80 customers and 13 employees were sickened as a result of eating at the company’s restaurant in Simi California. The illness was determined to be norovirus.

In October and November, upwards of 80 people took seriously ill after eating in establishments in Oregon and Washington State.  That was determined to be E.coli infection, a very  serious illness. Government agencies broadened the outbreak to include establishments in eight other U.S. states.

Earlier this month, upwards of 150 people were sickened after eating at Chipotle in Boston’s Brookline district.  That illness was confirmed as the presence of Norovirus, likely spread from a sick person serving food. The Wall Street Journal recently indicated that since July, there have been five outbreaks involving either norovirus, salmonella or E.coli illnesses.

Which each incident, Chipotle’s PR team attempted to place a positive spin to each incident assuring consumers of the chain’s concerns.

Chipotle itself was compelled to warn investors that the current episodes of illness outbreak could negatively impact its quarterly earnings by as much as eleven percent in the fourth quarter.  That was before the Boston incident, and the company’s stock has suffered free-fall with every announcement of a temporary closing of a restaurant. This is an obvious crisis of confidence from many dimensions.

Last week, the chain’s Founder, Chairman and Co-CEO Steve Ellis traveled to Boston and appeared on the nationally televised NBC News Today show to publically apologize to customers. That by our lens, was far too late in this ongoing crisis. That persona, presence and commitment to action would have been far more meaningful during the suspected E.coli incidents.

The firm’s web site includes a Commitment to Food Safety page. It states in-part:

In the wake of recent food safety-related incidents at a number of Chipotle restaurants, we have taken aggressive actions to implement pioneering food safety practices. We have carefully examined our operations—from the farms that produce our ingredients, to the partners that deliver them to our restaurants, to the cooking techniques used by our restaurant crews—and determined the steps necessary to make the food served at Chipotle as safe as possible.”

Directly concerning food supply, the statement goes on to declare:

To accomplish this goal, we have partnered with Seattle-based IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group, a preeminent food safety testing and consulting company. Led by company founder and CEO Dr. Mansour Samadpour, IEH is working directly with Chipotle’s Supply Chain and Operations departments to implement a set of industry-leading practices, including some changes to our previous protocols.”

Further outlined are actions related to food handling and preparation at restaurants, crew education and training and audits and assessments. In essence, Chipotle has decided to reverse a prior practice of preparing raw vegetables and produce at local restaurants. Instead, the chain will revert back to a centralized produce preparation process where washing, preparation and more sophisticated pathogen inspection will be performed, prior to shipping produce to local establishments. Stricter quality standards further imply that the chain’s mission to source locally grown produce will have to change since some local farmers will not be able to adhere to stricter and far more expensive standards.

These are all worthy actions but they in-aggregate will take weeks and months to fully take effect. Newly outlined food preparation and handling practices for local restaurants call into question why were these standards not originally adhered to in a restaurant chain that has a mission statement of high quality food with integrity. The revised audits and assessment section begs the question of frequency and resources dedicated to that effort. All the safeguards of the food supply chain can be neutered by improper food handling and lax supervision at the point of serving. In other words, food with integrity does not end at the receiving door.

What is fairly obvious is that Chipotle needs to rebuild trust and consumer confidence. That includes an admission that a locally sourced food supply chain that can meet strict and consistent quality standards will take time to implement, especially considering the nationwide size of this chain. The boldness and commitment displayed in January needs to be openly demonstrated NOW.

Why not a temporary nationwide suspension of all outlets to perform top to bottom cleaning and rigorous employee training at each and every Chipotle outlet?

What about a moratorium on the opening of any new restaurants until the existing and planned future food supply chain can meet stricter quality standards?

What about an objective  third-party firm being engaged to conduct audits and assessments in the first year of this program to assure consumers of added trust?

Inform all of your patrons, this author and his family included, where exactly Chipotle sources each of produce supply.

By our lens, Chipotle needs to get in front of this crisis and demonstrate to all consumers, this author included, that its mission is not to satisfy Wall Street and bottom-line short-term interests but rather to preserve its reputation as serving food with upmost quality and integrity. Fresh should not equate to expanded risk and expansion should not outpace the ability of the supply chain to meet high standards of food safety in fresh natural or organic food.

Bob Ferrari