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On heels of E. coli outbreaks, Chipotle spending millions for new ingredient safeguards

Chain also offers a shot at free food to woo customers back

By Doug G. Ware
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On heels of E. coli outbreaks, Chipotle spending millions for new ingredient safeguards
The sign on this empty Chipotle pestaurant in St. Louis says it closed all of its locations for a four-hour food safety meeting, for all 50,000 of its employees on Monday. The company announced new food safeguards to be implemented in response to a series of food safety issues, including an E. coli outbreak that resulted in the closures of several locations in the Pacific Northwest last fall, that the company said will cost up to $10 million. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo

DENVER, Feb. 8 (UPI) -- After recently closing numerous locations due to an E. coli outbreak, Chipotle Mexican Grill announced Monday it's investing millions in a food safety program.

Chipotle has taken a beating in recent years -- and especially in recent months -- due to a number of food safety issues that led to customers getting sick. Last fall, an E. coli outbreak led the chain to temporarily close a number of its restaurants in the Pacific Northwest.

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Monday, co-CEO Steve Ells said the company plans to spend up to $10 million to implement a food safety program aimed at shoring up the quality of food it receives from suppliers.

All Chipotle locations in the United States temporarily closed Monday afternoon for a national meeting at which the new measures were addressed with employees before reopening. The chain offered to give customers free food if they texted the word "raincheck" to 888-222 by 6 p.m. EST on Monday. A return text in the next few days will contain a coupon, the company said.

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The $10 million will go toward helping local farmers pay for the offset in cost for new tests to ensure crop quality and other safeguards.

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"Not only do we need to work closely with our suppliers to ensure that the ingredients we buy are safe, but we also need to make sure that once those ingredients reach our restaurants, they are handled and prepared in the safest way possible," Chipotle said on its website.

One of the new protocols Chipotle said it's implementing is high-resolution testing.

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"For example, the cilantro we use gets tested twice -- once in the field before harvest and again after it's cleaned and ready to be packed," the chain said. "After harvest, the cilantro is cleaned and tested again before being packed. Just as in the case of field testing, the packed cilantro is only shipped to Chipotle restaurants once they have passed the test."

The company said it will also process some ingredients at a central kitchen, where the risk of bacteria or germs is reduced. In another safety measure, beef and chicken will be marinated only at the end of the night to reduce the risk of cross contamination.

Chipotle's new efforts follow nearly a decade of incidents involving food safety issues.

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In 2008, a hepatitis outbreak was traced to a Southern California location. That same year, a norovirus outbreak tied to the restaurant occurred in Ohio. In 2009, an outbreak of campylobacteriosis was traced to a location in Minnesota.

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Last July, an E. coli outbreak was traced to a location in Seattle and in October another outbreak led to the closures of several locations in Washington state and Oregon. Additional outbreaks involving salmonella and two further norovirus incidents also occurred in 2015.

The recent E. coli cases, which were widely reported in the media, coincided with a downturn in Chipotle stock (NYSE: CMG). Shares, which traded at more than $750 per share at one point in August, fell below $450 during trading Monday.

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