What Chipotle and Qdoba Can Prevent After Recent Health Scares

By Brian Harris

Last week was a very bad week for two of America’s top fast-casual Mexican chains. First, Chipotle closed 43 restaurants in Oregon and Washington as a result of an E.coli outbreak. Chipotle is still trying to determine the cause of the outbreak as those sickened have filed lawsuits. The outbreak grabbed national attention and even got the attention of Stephen Colbert and the The Late Show.

Overall, it’s been a difficult year for Chipotle. It started in August when the chain was linked to a norovirus outbreak in Simi Valley, California. Shortly after, cases of salmonella were traced back to tomatoes served at Chipotle restaurants in Minnesota. This tri-fecta of foodborne illness is also in combination with a months-long carnitas shortage after the chain removed pork from its menus when a supplier failed to follow animal welfare standards.

Meanwhile, Qdoba Mexican Grill has been dealing with a typhoid fever outbreak that has infected three customers in Colorado. The life-threatening bacterial infection was traced to an infected food handler at the restaurant. Interestingly, the Colorado outbreak occurred in August, but the infections were only reported recently because the illness has a long incubation period.

How did it happen when workers making burritos are required to wear gloves? That’s something Qdoba will have to investigate.

Preventing What You Can

In Chipotle’s case, if this E.coli outbreak was in fact the result of a supply chain issue, a disaster like this can be hard to prevent. That’s the nature of a fresh-not-frozen foodservice model. The food often tastes better, but there’s an elevated risk for illness. However, Chipotle will also have to rule out human error or negligence in determining the cause.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend these tips to prevent E.coli contamination:

  • Cook ground beef to 160° F and check the temperature with a thermometer.
  • Wash the thermometer after use.
  • Keep raw meat away from other foods. Wash your hands, cutting board, and utensils with hot soapy water.
  • Don’t forget beverages. Drink only pasteurized, milk, juice, or cider.

E.coli can also be spread when raw vegetables, sprouts, and fruits have been grown or washed in dirty water. It is also spread by people who have not washed their hands after using the toilet. That would result in an isolated incident, like the Qdoba typhoid fever case.

Qdoba will have to address food handling and sanitation practices with its employees.

Tracking Compliance

How do you know if employees have gotten the memo? When your network is as large as Chipotle or Qdoba, you need to entrust this task to your managers. They need to deliver the message at the store-level, and monitor kitchens for compliance.

Food safety is too important to rely on guesswork, though. Know where you stand by developing a system and tracking progress.

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