Monday, December 14, 2015

Member in the News: Jayson Lusk & Marc Bellemare

When Eating Clean Is Dirty: Chipotle, ‘Fresh’ Offerings and Food Safety

A closer look at how sustainable food practices pose unique challenges to safety.
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Environment and animal rights groups have praised Chipotle for its sustainable and humane practices, but its recent food poisoning outbreaks illustrate the challenges that can come with living up to this image.

Branded with the tagline “food with integrity,” Chipotle has led the movement among fast-food chains in acquiring produce from local farmers, seeking meat producers who carry out humane animal practices, and reducing its environmental impact. It has used terms like “sustainable,” “added hormone-free,” “organic,” “naturally raised” and “unprocessed” in its marketing materials.

But food safety experts say these campaign have shifted the company’s focus away from microbial safety, and that these very choices contribute to making it more difficult to guarantee the food won’t become infected with germs that can make customers sick with diarrhea and vomiting for days.

“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.”

E. coli outbreaks linked to food from Chipotle has been reported in nine states, infecting 52 people, though officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention haven’t identified what ingredient is responsible. The chain, well-known for its burritos, uses 64 ingredients from more than 100 suppliers at its 1,900 restaurants.

In an effort to reduce its carbon footprint, Chipotle increasingly has used more produce from local suppliers. In 2012, it bought 10 million pounds of locally grown produce, and bought an additional 5 million pounds each year, setting a goal of 25 million pounds by 2015, according to a review of company press releases and an email from Chris Arnold, Chipotle’s spokesman.

“If you are sourcing foods from one or two suppliers it’s easier to manage than if you have dozens of medium or smaller suppliers,” says Don Schaffner, a food science expert and professor at Rutgers University. “They may not have the resources to do food safety.”

Chipotle hasn’t identified the source of latest E. coli infection. Arnold said in an email that “in all probability, [the contamination] was not something that came from a local supplier given the geographic nature of the incident.”

But Steve Ells, Chipotle’s chairman, founder and co-CEO, said Tuesday that the company is investing heavily in food safety with new protocols, specifically citing testing of fresh produce. “There will be robust testing procedures that will need to be in place for all of our suppliers, whether large or small,” he said in a presentation in New York. “Some of the smaller suppliers might have a hard time implementing these robust testing procedures initially. We’ll help them. Not all will be on board, for sure, but we think most will.”
Chipotle has in its 2013 and 2014 annual reports acknowledged the challenges presented by the choices it makes to deliver food that hasn’t been frozen and that is prepared to order. In 2008 – the same year the company started its local produce program – the company began to point to isolated instances of food poisoning, but prior to that its annual reports focused on general references to foodborne illness, which they said could come from fears consumers have about threats that occur outside the company’s jurisdiction, such as globals fears of bird flu or mad cow disease.

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