Inside Chipotle's food safety overhaul

by Joel Crews
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Chipotle food
Chipotle relies on technology, training and supplier partnerships to win back customers and market share.

CARLSBAD, CALIF. — Since the foodborne illness outbreak of late 2015 that included 55 cases of E. coli O26 across 11 states followed by the discovery of norovirus at a Boston-based restaurant that reportedly sickened 80 customers, officials with Chipotle Mexican Grill have taken aggressive steps to rebuild its image and bolster its food safety practices. One of the first and most meaningful reactions was hiring food safety guru Jim Marsden, Ph.D. as its executive director of food safety, who teamed with Dale Dexter, Ph.D., manager of food safety programs, to implement a new system of food safety interventions and supplier requirements. Dr. Dexter, who was hired about 17 months ago in the wake of the debacle, discussed some of the specifics of the programs during the Food Processing Suppliers Association’s Annual Conference in March.

He said the company has come a long way in the past 16 months. “It’s been an interesting ride,” he said.

Chipotle chorizo
Chipotle uses high pressure processing to treat its chorizo sausage.

After losing billions in sales and stock value in the wake of the outbreaks, the company’s founder, Steve Ells, announced his commitment to making the restaurant chain the safest in the industry, which included focusing on vulnerabilities in the supply chain, training its 65,000 employees and enhancing food safety practices at the chain’s 2,200 locations, which includes identifying and preventing norovirus.

Beyond the financial loss related to the illness issues that stemmed back to January 2015, the bigger hit came in the form of customers who lost trust in the company.

Dale Dexter, Chipotle
Dale Dexter, Ph.D., manager of food safety programs for Chipotle

“The loyal customers who would eat at Chipotle three or four times per week,” said Dr. Dexter, “we really felt like we let them down.”

He added, “Steve Ells made it clear we had to do better.” 

He said the company’s original food safety practices were adopted from McDonald’s Corp., during the years when the fast-food chain had partial ownership interest in Chipotle, and were enhanced over time. Once Dr. Marsden was hired, about two months after Dr. Dexter joined the company, Chipotle was set on a course for a more vigilant approach to food safety and the accountability of its suppliers.    

Dr. Marsden and Dr. Dexter initially scoured every ingredient and every process that the chain’s suppliers use. Dr. Dexter said during his time at suppliers’ plants, he focuses largely on process control, requiring them to demonstrate microbial reduction at each measured step in their process.

Chipotle beef
Chipotle adopted sous-vide cooking of its beef.

The duo also adopted technologies to improve the safety of food, including using sous-vide cooking of its beef by two of its suppliers, OSI Industries and Ed Miniat L.L.C.

“We used to bring raw steak into our restaurants,” said Dr. Dexter, but soon after adopting the technology, the meat suppliers were cooking 800,000 lbs of beef per week to control risks, which also just happened to improve the quality of the product, he said.

Sous vide was also experimented with to cook Chipotle’s chicken, but the end product did not meet the quality standards of Mr. Ells. Until a better option is discovered, raw chicken is still delivered to the restaurants.  High pressure processing (HPP) is another intervention adopted by Chipotle to treat its chorizo sausage, another raw product that contains chicken and pork and is shipped to the company’s restaurants each day. Packages of chorizo are shipped to an HPP tolling facility as a final intervention before shipping. The HPP process also increased the shelf life of the sausage to approximately 30 days, according to Dr. Dexter.

As for the vegetables used in the eateries, blanching is the kill step used at each location for now, Dr. Dexter said. At each restaurant, two employees are typically scheduled to come in two hours earlier than the rest of the crew with the purpose of immersing avocados, bell peppers, onions, jalapeños and citrus fruits in boiling water for five seconds.

Chipotle vegetables
Chipotle uses blanching as the kill step for its vegetables.

The company has also updated its sanitation supplies in the restaurants, said Dr. Dexter, including the use of PURE Bioscience Hard Surface cleaner. Stores were equipped with REME HALO in-duct air purifier systems to address airborne bacteria and IMSB Ice Machine Sanitizer systems to minimize risks associated with ice production.  Chipotle has also partnered with Ecolab to perform food safety audits and act as coaches on behalf of the company in addition to using the expertise of FoodLogiQ as part of its Supplier Management and Traceability Program. Despite the fact the chain only works with 65 ingredients, said Dr. Dexter, “you have to be able to track it; it has to be defensible.”

Other restaurant operation-focused changes included implementing 12 critical control points and creating a web-based Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) control log, integrating Bluetooth thermometers linked to a digital alert system.  Training also included HACCP-certifying Chipotle’s 400 Field Leaders and ongoing food safety training with restaurant workers using iPads that are designed to engage employees by entertaining and informing.

In hindsight, said Dr. Dexter, one of the most significant issues that needed to be addressed was how to deal with employees showing up for work when they were ill, which was the origin of Chipotle’s infamous norovirus outbreak.

Because it can be devastatingly contagious, the air filtering system is just part of preventing future cases. Chipotle’s new sick employee policy requires managers to identify any symptoms of illness among employees and is supported by a dedicated team of nurses and a hotline to help discern the wellness of workers thought to be ill. The company has also adopted a paid sick leave policy as part of this program.     

“We see this as one of the biggest risks in our business,” said Dr. Dexter of workers reporting to work feeling sick, often because they can’t afford to miss a shift.
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