Chipotle Is In Serious Trouble

December 9th 2015

Laura Donovan

Chipotle has had a rough year. Sales have dropped, shares are down, there have been multiple outbreaks of E. coli over the past few months and subsequent restaurant closures. This past weekend, at least 80 Boston College students, including multiple athletes, reported having gastrointestinal problems after eating at a Boston Chipotle location, which was temporarily shut down during a health inspection.

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Chipotle storefront

Though Boston College students initially feared that they might have contracted E. coli connected to Chipotle's outbreak that affected more than 50 people this fall, Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said the newest outbreak appears to be unrelated to the previous ones.

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"Health officials in Boston believe this is likely a norovirus, which seems consistent with the pattern, in our estimation," Arnold told NBC News in a statement.

According to NBC News, the investigation at the Boston chain found that chicken was being cooked at too low a temperature and that an employee "worked while showing signs of illness and because of the reports of possible foodborne illness." As noted by NBC News, norovirus spreads easily, even through just one sick worker, and many people don't wash their hands thoroughly enough to kill the virus.


Chipotle's widespread E. coli outbreak has now reportedly made 52 people in nine states sick. In August, Chipotle had a norovirus outbreak at a Simi Valley location, which passed a health inspection but was found to have broken health code violations including insufficient food temperatures. Around the same time as the Simi Valley fracas, 17 Chipotle locations in Minnesota were linked to a Salmonella outbreak, which was caused by contaminated tomatoes.

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Though Chipotle is unsure of what caused the E. coli outbreak, it has vowed to adopt stricter food safety polices in the wake of this mess.

"It's going to cost money," CFO Jack Hartung told CNBC.

Meanwhile, business has suffered. According to NBC News, shares have dropped nearly 30 percent from their all time high of $758.61, which the company achieved over the summer. Chipotle also sent Wall Street investors a warning that the company may have to hike up prices as a result of increasing food safety measures. Chipotle also warned investors last week that same-store sales for the current quarter could drop between eight and 11 percent if trends remain the same. Some locations have seen as big a dip as 22 percent.


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"Sales trends during the quarter so far have been extremely volatile," Chipotle wrote in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. "As a restaurant company, nothing is more important to us than serving our guests food that is delicious and safe to eat. Since this incident began, we have significantly increased our efforts to ensure that our teams are adhering to all of our food safety protocols, reassessed all facets of our food safety programs — from the farms that provide the ingredients we use, to the restaurants where we serve our customers — and made a number of improvements to help ensure that our food is as safe as it can be."

Chipotle, unfortunately, isn't the only fast food chain to face a major health outbreak. In the early 1990s, Jack in the Box was found responsible for a mass E. coli outbreak that killed several children and sickened hundreds of people in the U.S., prompting the Clinton administration to start administering random testing for E. coli in ground beef. The meat industry went on to sue the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) over the testing, but the USDA ultimately won the lawsuit.

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David Acheson, a former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) associate commissioner for foods, recently told Retro Report over the summer that the Jack in the Box health incident was "a wakeup call to many, including the regulators." Though the widespread illness was highly stressful for the country, the incident forced the FDA to prioritize food safety.

"You go in for a hamburger with the kids and you could die," Acheson said. "It changed consumers' perceptions and it absolutely changed the behaviors of the industry."

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Editor's note: an earlier version of this story misstated that E. coli is a virus. ATTN: regrets this error.