By Toni Ann Booras
BU News Service
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Chipotle Mexican Grill may still be recovering from several separate outbreaks of foodborne illness in the second half of 2015, but that didn’t stop the line at Washington, D.C.’s M Street Chipotle from stretching around the store and out the door at lunchtime.
“It’s always crowded,” said Wendy Cobb, who works on nearby 21st Street. “Look at how many people are in there right now. They have not been deterred.”
In February, the company announced its first sales decline since going public in 2006. Fourth-quarter profits in 2015 totaled $67.8 million, a decrease of 44 percent from the same period in 2014, according to a press release.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in February the company’s E. coli outbreaks “appear to be over.” Still, officials said they had not been able to trace the outbreaks to any one source.
“Most ill people in these outbreaks ate many of the same food items at a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant,” a CDC release stated. “When a restaurant serves foods with several ingredients that are mixed or cooked together and then used in multiple menu items, it can be more difficult for epidemiologic studies to identity the specific ingredient that is contaminated.”
Cobb said she has no concerns about food safety at the chain, adding that she visits the restaurant about once a week. She said she has not noticed a decrease in customers at the location since the outbreaks.
“There’s a taco place right up the street and it doesn’t look anything like this” said Cobb, referring to the large number of people in the restaurant.
Sandra B. Eskin, Director of the Safe Food Project and the Pew Charitable Trusts, said when companies experience publicized outbreaks like the ones at Chipotle last year, they actually often become much safer.
“Past experience has shown that after a company or restaurant has had a food safety problem, they institute best practices and then become among the safest places to eat – at least for a while,” said Eskin in an email statement.
Chipotle closed its stores nationwide for lunch Feb. 8 to hold a company-wide meeting on food safety. The company then ran a “raincheck giveaway” promotion to get customers back in its stores by giving free burritos to anyone who texted “raincheck” to 888-222 by 6 p.m. the day stores closed for lunch.
In a statement, Chipotle announced new safety procedures before the meeting, including “washing and cutting of some produce items (such as tomatoes and romaine lettuce) and shredding cheese in central kitchens.”
Eskin said such a measure would likely help by ensuring fewer hands touch the food and placing more control over the food in question. Other new measures include enhanced employee training and paid sick leave to ensure sick employees stay home.
“The procedures included below do reflect ‘best practices’ on paper,” said Eskin, “but how they are implemented is really what matters.”
Eskin said it might be difficult for the company to ensure these practices are actually put into place and that their employees practice what they learned. In a letter posted on the Chipotle website, Chipotle co-CEO Steve Ells said the process to determine which food safety measures to put into place began with a “farm-to-fork risk assessment of every ingredient and all of our restaurant protocols and procedures.”
“We have implemented unprecedented food safety standards with our suppliers, which make the food coming into our restaurants safer than ever before,” Ells said in a statement.
Alban Rush, who was visiting the M Street Chipotle, said while he himself had no concerns about frequenting the chain, he was surprised by the large number of people shrugging off concerns about the outbreaks.
“I grew up in a different country and so I tend not to worry about these things,” he said. “If I have concerns about the health safety of a particular restaurant, I won’t go there.”
The company began experiencing a series of health and safety nationwide last year, including two E. coli outbreaks that led to at least 22 hospitalizations. The initial E. coli outbreak left 55 people in 11 states sickened, while five people in three states were affected by the second, apparently unrelated outbreak.
The company’s problems did not end with E. coli. A salmonella outbreak at a Minnesota location in August sickened 64 and was later traced to tomatoes used at the store, according to the state’s Department of Health.
Additionally, the company is still in a legal battle over a norovirus outbreak in Simi Valley, California in August that sickened 234 people. The FDA and U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California are looking into the incident and the company has been served several subpoenas for records related to food safety going back to 2013, according to a press release. The class-action lawsuit claims an employee was suffering symptoms but continued to work in the restaurant ahead of the outbreak, according to Fortune.
Chipotle’s stock has been on the rise since closing Jan. 12 at $404.26, the lowest it’s been since Aug. 2013. The stock closed at $515.93 on Feb. 18.
Chipotle did not respond to a request for comment.