A Lesson In Chipotle's E. Coli Outbreak

Feb. 18, 2016

If you have seen the news the last few weeks/months, then you probably heard or read about the disastrous E. coli outbreak at Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants across the U.S. that hit 11 states and sickened more than 50 customers.

The outbreak has been what I can only imagine and classify a ‘nightmare’ for the company who posted a first-ever sales decline due to the illnesses; the company’s profits dropped 44 percent in the fourth quarter.

Now that the CDC has declared the Chipotle-linked E. coli outbreak over, the company is working on gaining back its customers with an enhanced food safety plan and some good marketing.

One thing I found of interest in the entire ordeal is that even though Chipotle visits were down, the chain’s base of teen and young adult customers still continued their support of the restaurant, NPD Group wrote. NPD’s Bonnie Riggs notes that the reasoning for this could be “a result of unabashed loyalty or lack of awareness.”

Whatever the reason for their support, analysts predict that Chipotle will – at some point – recover from the damage.

While the restaurant industry may be able to bounce back from something this big (they have before), vending does not have that luxury.

In the wake of national food safety breaches, it becomes more important for vending and micro market operators, especially those with commissaries and cafeterias, to see that they are maintaining strict food handling procedures. This goes from the kitchen all the way to market and machine delivery.

Just this week I read an article published in a campus newspaper— a college student had gone to a nearby vending machine for a refrigerated pizza and found after the purchase that the item was noticeably moldy. The item had been expired since Dec. 28, yet the article noted that the vending provider said they service the machine once a week. The incident compromised food safety. It also most likely has changed the perception of the industry for those involved.

Many entities – operators, NAMA, etc. – are working to improve the perception of the food and services provided by the vending and micro market industry. The first step to ensuring a food borne illness outbreak doesn’t occur at your location is to have strict guidelines in place and stick to them each day. 

Education is key as well. Learning which foods are risks can lead to prevention of an illness outbreak. The New York Times published Ten Common Food Poisoning Risks, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, with the top three being leafy greens, eggs and tuna. The FDA and CDC are good resources, too.

As the vending and micro market industry introduces healthier, fresher foods to fit consumer preferences, there will be a bigger need for employees in all aspects of the food handling process to abide by guidelines to avoid any irrevocable damage.