What Can We Learn From The Chipotle Outbreaks?


Chipotle is a fast-food favorite that offers fresh, made-to-order burritos with an underlying philosophy of using ingredients that are as farm-to-table as a large chain can muster. It has recently been beleaguered with E. coli, Salmonella and norovirus outbreaks. The distantly scattered outbreaks — Oregon, Ohio, Boston — are not yet attributed to any definitive source.

In order to bounce back and regain consumer trust, Chipotle will need to put many safeguards in place in the near term. When Taco Bell had a similar outbreak in 2006, it took at least four fiscal quarters for their same-store sales to recover. The need to act is critical, and Chipotle is already taking steps.

For those in any field where infection prevention is critical to human health, what lessons can be learned? A recent Bloomberg article shines some light on critical inflection points where Chipotle may have erred, and points to areas where we can improve in both the restaurant and the hospital.

One potential factor identified by the Bloomberg article was hand hygiene. While better hand washing practices alone won’t stop contamination, they can certainly reduce the spread of diseases. According to the article, Chipotle had implemented an hourly siren that reminded employees to wash their hands and replace their gloves. Unfortunately, three sources suggested that the reminder was often ignored when the restaurant was busy, in order to keep up with demand.

Lesson 1: Never let hygiene protocols take a back seat to efficiency. The risks are too great.

Additionally, Chipotle grew rapidly in recent years, opening an average of 200 restaurants per year. This necessitated extensive hiring; about 4,000 people. Bloomberg called it a “human resources nightmare”, which is apt when you consider the extensive onboarding process needed to properly train employees in food safety.

Lesson 2: Determine whether the hygiene gap is in the procedures, or in training to those procedures. Implement appropriate training protocol that puts consumer safety first in the employee’s mind.

Now in response to the outbreaks, Chipotle is implementing new protocols that will involve more extensive testing and washing of produce, among many other actions. Chipotle’s Chief Financial Officer, Jack Hartung, admits the urgent changes will cost Chipotle some (metaphorical) beans: “We’re likely to do it very inefficiently.”

Lesson 3: Plan for health and safety first, so that drastically inefficient measures don’t have to be implemented in reaction to a crisis.

That final point is the most critical takeaway from this outbreak: that proper planning for the protection of consumer health and safety is paramount, no matter your industry.

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Credit xenexadmin