On the Chipotle Food Safety Outbreaks

Much has been written in the past couple weeks about the foodborne illnesses contracted by Chipotle customers.  I've been a bit reluctant to weight in because, at least in some social media circles, there seemed to be some pleasure taken in Chipotle's misfortune.  From my perspective, however, I don't want to delight in someone else's misfortune (particularly some unsuspecting food consumer's foodborne illness) even if I've previously been critical of the vendor's marketing practices.   What I will say is that Chipotle engaged in a variety of marketing practices  (e.g., going non-GMO, no hormone, etc.) the best science suggests have no material impact on food safety, and yet the moves were likely aimed (at least in some part) to increase the perception (rather than the reality) of food safety.  

Marketing aside, there is a real trade-off to be made between selling "clean", fresh, food sourced from small-local vendors and food safety.  There are likely some taste benefits with fresh, unfrozen food and there is nothing inherently wrong with being willing to pay a bit more for wares from smaller more local providers.  But, choosing these options may make ensuring food safety a bit more challenging.  

That's the message I tried to communicate to the reporter Kimberly Leonard for this piece in US News & World Report.  She quoted me as saying:

“If you want to make products fresh, that means you’re not going to use a preservative or it’s going to be unprocessed,” says Jayson Lusk, president-elect for the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, who has been critical of Chipotle’s marketing practices. “It does provide a real tradeoff in terms of providing a safe product for the consumer.”


Lusk says his research has shown that the increase in demand for all-natural, so-called “clean” food, is a “real challenge to food safety.”

“We tend to have this idea that small is clean and safe – it could be true but it’s not necessarily true,” Lusk says. “You’ll have more food waste and it will be more expensive, and your food safety is more of a challenge. … It’s just a trade off they make.”

I touched on this same topic for a chapter on technological improvements related to food safety I wrote for my forthcoming book, Unnaturally Delicious

The bigger problem, however, is what happens to the safety of food when seemingly unnatural ingredients are not used. Keeping food safe without using chemical additives is a big challenge for food manufacturers and retailers. Consumers are increasingly demanding fresher, more natural, “clean” food. Yet, as one food safety expert told me, “It’s a tremendous strain on the food-producing industry. If you take away growth inhibitors, what do you do?” One executive of a large food retailer remarked, “As consumers are asking for fresh and more natural food, we have to take out ingredients and preservatives, which makes food less safe.” Fresh foods might have taste advantages, but they also tend to have shorter shelf lives, increasing the likelihood of earlier spoilage and food waste. Moreover, research and development costs involved in reformulating preservatives to increase the perception of naturalness are passed on to the consumer in the form of higher food prices, even when the preservatives’ underlying chemical properties have not changed.

Here's another portion of the book related to a discussion I had with Frank Yiannas, the VP of food safety for Walmart (written well before news of the Chipotle outbreaks emerged):

I started by asking about the size of Walmart. More than 120 million Americans (more than a third of the U.S. population) shop at Walmart every week. Does the sheer scale of the operation make the U.S. food system riskier? If Walmart has an outbreak, multitudes would be sickened. Yiannas replied: “One out of every four dollars spent on food are spent at a Walmart. We can make a big difference. Large organizations like Walmart result in a safer food system.” He points out that when Walmart makes a change, it affects the whole system. Sure, smaller companies might have outbreaks that affect fewer people, but when lots of small companies are having lots of small outbreaks, the problem is more widespread. A downside to small companies, said Yiannas, is that they can’t easily invest in improving the system as a whole. While Walmart often attracts negative attention because of its size and scale (e.g., Do they pay workers fairly? Do they hurt local mom-and-pop busineses?), at least in the world of food safety, their size has significant benefits for its customers, and as I’ll soon discuss, even for non-customers.