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Why Chipotle’s reputation is crashing & what that means for beef producers

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Several cases of foodborne illnesses have been reported and traced back to Chipotle. Now the burrito chain’s reputation is falling. What does this mean for beef producers?

Recently, food served by Chipotle Mexican Restaurant was traced back to an outbreak of a foodborne illness called novovirus-caused gastroenteritis, which impacted 140 people in the Boston area.

At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been tracking another, unrelated Chipotle food poisoning outbreak of E. coli STEC 026, which has affected patrons of the fast food chain in California, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington.

It appears Chipotle is going to have a hard time marketing its way out of this disaster. The company is well-known for its slogans promising “responsibly raised” meats and produce and commonly uses phrases such as, “We source from farms rather than factories,” and “With every burrito we roll or every bowl we fill, we’re working hard to cultivate a better world.”

This idealist marketing campaign has appealed to many consumers chasing the most recent food fads, all while instilling fear in the 95% of folks who just want to enjoy a good burrito, but are now questioning whether conventionally-raised meat and produce is safe.

According to Henry I. Miller, a contributor for Forbes, “Outbreaks of food poisoning have become something of a Chipotle trademark; the recent ones are the fourth and fifth this year, one of which was not disclosed to the public. A particularly worrisome aspect of the company’s serial deficiencies is that there have been at least three unrelated pathogens in the outbreaks–Salmonella and E. coli bacteria and norovirus. In other words, there has been more than a single glitch; suppliers and employees have found a variety of ways to contaminate what Chipotle cavalierly sells (at premium prices) to its customers.”

As one would expect, all of the negative news coverage of the E. coli outbreaks has damaged Chipotle’s reputation. The pedestal Chipotle rests upon has now been pulled from underneath the burrito chain.

In fact, Phil Wahba for Fortune writes, “The once high-flying burrito chain has seen its shares fall nearly 30% since then, and last week, Chipotle said same-store sales this quarter could fall as much as 11% because of the news.”

What’s most disturbing is instead of Chipotle working on ways to improve its food safety measures in order to avoid future outbreaks, the chain is more worried about blaming the CDC and the media for its problems.

Chipotle’s Chief Financial Officer Jack Hartung told Wall Street analysts, “It’s been fueled by the sort of unusual, even unorthodox, way the CDC has chosen to announce cases related to the original outbreak in the Northwest. Because the media likes to write sensational headlines, we can probably see when somebody sneezes that they’re going to say, ‘Ah, it’s E. Coli from Chipotle’ for a little bit of time.”

While Chipotle licks its wounds, the beef industry has been presented with an interesting opportunity to educate consumers about the safety and nutrition of conventionally-raised meat.

Perhaps Miller says it best when he writes, “These episodes reveal several things. First and foremost, Chipotle is a company so out of control and negligent that it repeatedly endangers the public. But they also illustrate something important about food safety: Although the crops, meats and other foods produced by modern conventional agricultural technologies may not bring to mind a sentimental Norman Rockwell painting, they are on average safer than food that reflects pandering to current fads.”

What do you think about the Chipotle E. coli outbreak? In your opinion, should beef producers capitalize on this opportunity to talk about food safety in modern beef production? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Penton Agriculture.

 

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Discuss this Blog Entry 3

on Dec 15, 2015

Amanda, I offer a different strategy for you and your readers to consider. Instead of comparing the safety of conventionally raised beef, pork and chicken to the recent problems Chipotle has experienced, why not engage them directly about the safety of conventionally raised meat and poultry in a fervent attempt to sell them? Or, better yet respond to their desires for meat and poultry raised differently. The problem with pointing an accusing finger of blame at Chipotle’s meat and poultry supplier demands is that you open yourself up to the same level of scrutiny. Is the meat and poultry industry willing to place its record in the public view, again, of the millions of pounds of recalls, illnesses and even deaths that have occurred some even after changes and improvements in its raising and processing methods? In my view, such a strategy serves no good purpose other than some form of self-gratification. Whether you like Chipotle or not, the old sales bromide, “The customer may not always be right, but they are always the customer,” certainly applies. It seems currently popular to attempt to “sell” one’s ideas with bombast, vitriol and accusations. Rather, I say let’s directly engage Chipotle and not poke them in the eye when they are “down” to gain more of their supply rather than push them further off shore for their beef, pork and chicken needs. They are a food service store chain of more than 1,700 restaurants and even though they may be suffering now, they are not going out of business. They offer us an opportunity for more sales. I suspect that such a strategy may not resonate well with all of your readers. However, this is not an appeasement strategy, but rather a strong aggressive one to sell more domestically U.S. raised beef, pork and chicken. Further to this strategy, I would refer you to my recent blog in Meatingplace.com titled, “Hubris-When we get too big for our britches.” Mack H. Graves, latigomack@cs.com, 303-882-5453

on Dec 15, 2015

I fully support your strategy! Thank you for the cool headed response, Jim

on Dec 16, 2015

Maybe I'm missing the point but I don't believe the issue here is whether the basic ingredients to Chipolte's food was produced by conventional agricultural methods or alternative agricultural methods,. Chipolte has based their marketing on providing safe food that has been produced by alternative agricultural methods and is therefore "better" and so it commands a premium price.
Chipolte's failure, in my opinion, is that their handling of their product, their processing into meals, has not resulted in a safe product. They can blame other people all they want, but Chipolte is responsible for providing a safe product, just like McDonalds, Burger King, Jack in the Box, etc.
Blaming beef, pork, or chicken producers is not the way out of their problem. Proper handling and preparations, regardless of the source of the product, will prevent future cases of food poisoning.
Production agriculture doesn't have to do anything. Let Chipolte get their quality control act together. They are the problem, not the producers.

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BEEF Daily Blog is produced by rancher Amanda Radke, one of the U.S. beef industry’s top social media “agvocates.”

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Amanda Radke

A fifth-generation rancher from Mitchell, SD, Amanda grew up on a purebred Limousin cattle operation in which she and husband Tyler are active. She graduated with a degree in agriculture journalism...

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