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Chipotle and Food Safety: Serving Up Transparency to Earn Back Consumers’ Trust

food safety In early February, the CDC said that Chipotle’s E. coli outbreak “appeared to be over.” This recent occurrence that sickened more than 50 people across 11 states over an extended period of time once again brought the issues swirling around ensuring the safety of the nation’s food supply chain back to the center of attention, investigation and debate.

Perhaps what was surprising about this latest incident was not that it happened (because E. coli or some other type of food-borne illness occurs with such frequent regularity that when it happens, it’s just another news item) but that it happened to Chipotle, which has since its inception been widely recognized for its high standards and food safety callout

After all, it was only about five years ago that Chipotle founder Steve Ells was in Washington, D.C., making a passionate appeal before Congress for help in ending the overuse of antibiotics in America's food supply. His plea was (and still is) on-point with the growing consumer demand for “pure” foods and beverages.

And now, these recent events have derailed Chipotle’s sterling reputation and highlight the challenges companies, when enmeshed in a similar crisis (e.g., Blue Bell and the listeria outbreak), have to overcome to reestablish consumers’ trust, which will in turn restore sales and stock value.

Food safety is a broad topic that encompasses many areas of food production and consumption. From a consumer perspective, “food safety” is a term that connotes products that are clean, free of contaminants and properly produced. Consumer concern about food safety is high for many types of food-borne illnesses and also for a variety of food production techniques that are viewed as threats. Consumers feel the most control over food safety in their homes and the least control over food safety when dining out.

Despite the fact that food safety has a national scope, with headlines referring to regional outbreaks of various food-borne illnesses, consumers appear mainly focused on a more personal process of protecting themselves and their families from harm and sickness due to the consumption of unsafe foods.

In the minds of consumers, “food safety” is a term that designates an “absence of harm” derived from eating foods that are “free of” contaminants, bacteria or additives that will make themselves or their families sick. In addition, consumers cite repeatedly that food safety means foods that are “properly” produced and processed.

From another viewpoint, some consumers view food safety as a term that describes foods that are “clean.” When we examined what words were used to classify food safety along with the word “clean,” the term “free of” appears frequently, as do the key words “fresh” and “healthy.”

To a lesser extent, the operative word “prepared” occurs along with “clean,” as does the word “organic,” indicating that in an archetypal world, food safety means foods that are clean, free of contaminants, fresh, healthy, prepared properly and organic.

three important attributes to consumer when deciding which food and beverage to purchase

Providing Food “With Integrity”

The quest for clean food isn't unique to Chipotle. The fact that today's consumers seek more specific information on the foods and beverages they buy is a natural evolution of their interest in and adoption of organic and natural food products.

In many ways, the Chipotle situation reflects the somewhat hazy battleground visible today where what consumers view as “industrial” processed foods compete with brands that are attempting to move toward a horizon that embraces distinctions that relate to purity, simplicity of ingredients, freshness, and local or authentic products.

Our Diners’ Changing Behaviors 2015 and Transparency 2015 reports find that many of the distinctions laddering up to meet consumer demand for fresh, local and seasonal food and beverage experiences carry risks of their own — perhaps none as basic as safely shifting restaurant practices from a focus on predictable consistency (and all of its connotation of industrial production) toward those that imply meals made from scratch and (more) pure ingredients.

Chipotle’s predicament underscores the notion that while great opportunities exist in meeting diners’ demands for fresher (and what they view as healthier) experiences when eating out, food service providers face increasing risks in terms of delivering culinary distinctions safely and consistently. As brands scale up to meet demand at mass market levels, such risks will mean greater attention to details, which, ironically, will increasingly mirror the production standards of the largest providers of food and beverage experiences.

Chipotle has been very transparent about the steps it has taken — and plans to take in the future — to ensure the safety of the food it serves. And as we’ve written here before, Chipotle understands quite well that a full serving of transparency goes a long way with consumers.


Food & Beverage Occasions Health & Wellness Organic/Natural Sustainability Foodservice/Restaurant


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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