Chipotle, Marsden: New commitment to food safety? (commentary)

Chipotle's new hire of KSU's Marsden may well signal a new commitment to food safety.

Everyone knows that Chipotle has been hammered with multiple (five or six?) foodborne illness outbreaks in the last six months or so, linked to their preppy food outlets.

Two were caused by E coli and several by a norovirus.

E coli illnesses usually originate in contaminated meat or produce, Norovirus from food handlers themselves.

In response to the outbreaks, Denver-based Chipotle has announced several new ways to improve the safety of their food products, including increased testing for pathogens.

Most everyone knows testing meat for pathogens will not eliminate the norovirus risks. 

And one simply cannot test one’s way to a safe food product.

Education for those involved in food preparation might help, though, especially education about proper personal hygiene and staying home when ill.

Chipotle has stated they believe the E coli may have originated from beef shipped from Australia. Oops, I thought part of the Chipotle mantra and appeal was their product was fresh and local?

Evidently the CDC does not agree and believes the source may have been contaminated produce.

Increased testing of meat and poultry won’t necessarily eliminate or even reduce the risk if the CDC is correct.

Chipotle has also stated they will begin cooking their meat in a central location and then ship it to local outlets in vacuum sealed packaging.

While this sounds great, it does nothing if a food handler is infected with a norovirus and contaminates the food.

It also does nothing if the source of these E coli outbreaks was produce.

It is obvious I am not buying the new efforts to sanitize Chipotle’s food (and their food safety image).

Evidently consumers aren’t either.

The burrito chain’s shares have lost more than a quarter of their value over the last year as worries about the safety of its food sinks home to those who have a choice of where and what to eat.

Sales in stores open for more than a year collectively dropped 36% in January and another 26% in February.

Sales started to recover in March, then plummeted after an announcement that several workers in Massachusetts were ill from norovirus. This followed an earlier outbreak affecting dozens of Boston College students that were sickened after eating at a local Chipotle outlet.

Persons used to standing in line at Chipotle to get a burrito bowl, now look at the eerie  emptiness of the stores and wonder if they should go in or not.

To try and fill those stores back up, and restore confidence that Chipotle is once again safe and still popular, the chain is offering free burritos to regular customers.

They have also hired Dr. James Marsden, a well-known expert in food safety to be the food safety czar.

Marsden was the Regent’s Distinguished Professor of Food Safety at Kansas State University’s Animal Science and Industry since 1994.

He was also the lead scientific consultant for the North American Meat Processer’s Association (NAMP) for years along with serving on many other advisory boards for companies providing food safety technologies to the industry.

His research at KSU focused on E coli and Listeria.

I last saw Jim in person at an annual NAMP conference in 2009 when I made a presentation and enjoyed a breakfast presentation with him.

More recently Marsden and I have alternated Monday blogs on Food Safety for Meatingplace.com.

March 21 will be his last blog as a regular contributor.

Then he will join me as a transplanted Coloradoan, although he will probably root for the CU Buffaloes while I continue to support the Colorado State University’s Rams.

In faithfully following his blogs, I know he has very strong confidence in two methods to make our foods safer that are rarely implemented, partly because of cost and partly because of consumers mistrust of technology.

These two available but seldom used resources are low dose, whole carcass irradiation and high pressure processing (HPP).

To try and deflect consumer concerns, Jim often refers to these technologies as “cold pasteurization”.

Will bringing Marsden on as the food safety czar impress Joe Six Pack and/or my daughter-in-law, once one of the most faithful of the Chipotle faithful?

I doubt they even know who Jim is, or that he was retained recently by Chipotle, leaving KSU without his research efforts.

But what might change the public’s mind about food safety is if Chipotle uses Marsden‘s name and powerful influence to get their providers to employ either HPP or irradiation to guarantee their product is safer than the past would indicate.    

And that their product is safer than their competitors.

We have all witnessed what a strategic announcement here and there by industry leaders, or a series by the media, have done to the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry and to lean finely textured beef used in ground beef.

With falling sales, increased cost of doing business by increased testing and hiring Marsden, and the free giveaways (there may be a buy one get one free effort soon) Chipotle has to do something big.

Something the consuming public will see as being a proactive leader in the field.

Something besides talk.

Something they will understand.

If Marsden and Chipotle move the needle on either or both of his favorite food safety technologies, the faithful may return to the burrito king, forcing others to follow suit.

And that, in my opinion, would be a very good thing for America.

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