Last month Chipotle Mexican Grill closed a location in Powell, Ohio after nearly 650 reported illnesses were tied to the location. The outbreak was caused by Clostridium perfringens, a type of bacteria that thrives at room temperature—in other words, food at this particular Chipotle location may have been kept at unsafe temperatures.
The labor union International Brotherhood of Teamsters has been holding nationwide protests at Chipotle locations this month, taking issue with one of the restaurant chain’s suppliers. The supplier at the focus of the demonstrations is California-based produce company Taylor Farms, which supplies tomatoes and peppers to Chipotle, according to Teamsters.
“Over the past five years, Taylor Farms has had more than 20 food recalls for problems such as Listeria, Salmonella and E. coli. In November 2015, Taylor Farms products containing celery and sold at Costco and other retail outlets were recalled for possible E. coli 0157:H7 contamination,” according to a Teamster news release. “At Taylor Farms’ plant in Tracy, Calif., the company has also committed safety and health violations and violations of laws that protect workers’ rights. Recently, the company settled extensive labor rights violations that involved payments of $267,000 to illegally terminated workers and a required posting in which the company promises to never again violate a long list of employee rights.”
The Teamsters protested at 12 Chipotle locations across the country, following 30 previous protests at Chipotle over the past several months.
Teamster Vice President Rome Aloise points the finger at Chipotle for allowing Taylor Farms to “have a total disregard for consumers’ and workers’ health and safety, as well as workers’ rights,” he said. “Chipotle claims to serve ‘Food With Integrity’, but where’s the integrity when it turns a blind eye to its supplier’s behavior? Chipotle must not cut and run – which would hurt Taylor Farms workers – it must carry out its social responsibility and demand Taylor Farms treat workers fairly and with respect.”
Taylor Farms has not released a statement addressing the protests.
Across the board, increased employee awareness and training has become a big issue in food safety. The foodborne illness outbreaks that hit Chipotle Mexican Grill has put retail and restaurant establishments on high alert, yet this is just another example of the reactive culture in which we operate, according to Matt Schiering, vice president and general manager at Sani Professional.
Food Safety Tech recently hit the road with Schiering and John Caton, regional sales manager at Sani Professional, to experience first hand how one company is communicating its message to customers. Breaking with tradition has been an important part of promoting cleaner technology: The use of the rag and bucket as a means to clean both the front of the house (tables, chairs, counters, etc.) as well as the back of restaurants and retail establishments, while still fairly common, has outlived its effectiveness, and frankly, says Schiering, “screams unclean”. Caton and Schiering continued the conversation with their customers about how using disposable wipes for cleaning, sanitizing and disinfection helps prevent the spread of contamination, along with the cost savings associated with using such products. The company takes a multi-prong approach to promoting awareness among its current and potential clients, from deploying a sales force that directly interacts with quality assurance and food safety professionals in establishments to offering how advances in sustainable technology can help them stay ahead of the curve to driving consumer advocacy.
Food Safety Tech: How is Sani Professional raising the level awareness of the disadvantages of the traditional cleaning method (the rag and bucket method) in the retail environment?
Matt Schiering: There are a few ways to raise the level of awareness. The first and foremost is “feet on the street”. We’ve deliberately moved toward a direct-to-customer sales force, which gives us the opportunity to interface directly with QA, food safety and operations to show them a simpler, more efficient, more effective, and guest appealing way versus the traditional rag and bucket. The first win is one for the user (the employees of a given establishment), because associates have shown us time and time again that they do not like the mixing and measuring, and the errors that are often associated with that process. They don’t like the dirty rag itself—having to fish it out of the bowl and then present it or be seen with it in the front of the establishment. It’s a win for the operator (the manager), because with our system, there’s no longer any heightened heart rate when the health inspector shows up. One of the most common violations is the water in the buckets being out of spec or the rags themselves not being inside the bucket per regulation. And perhaps most importantly, it’s a win for the guest. Think about your own restaurant experiences. Guests don’t want to see or be confronted with a greyish brown rag [that is used to] wipe a table, then wipe a seat, then wipe an adjacent table. It just screams unclean.
As we talk about the evolution in perception, away from traditional methods, we believe that speaking directly to the consumer has to play a role. There has to be a degree of consumer-driven advocacy for a better way. – Matt Schiering
FST: Regarding employee training, how should retailers be more proactive in ensuring their employees are engaging in proper food safety practices and aren’t spreading foodborne illnesses?
Schiering: It varies by chain. Unfortunately, we live in a reactive culture—and that goes well beyond the restaurant industry.
Oftentimes a problem precedes a protocol or other means of addressing said problem. Chipotle is one example: They’ve taken an exhaustive look at restructuring their food safety protocols as a result of a myriad of foodborne illness-related issues that they suffered in the preceding months. The [retailers] who are doing it best are the ones who build it into their establishment in the first place where it’s not predicated by some sort of problem. That involves training materials, in-service lessons, and online training (i.e., ServSafe certifications). Waffle House, for example, has Waffle House University where food safety is a key component to that system.
We envision ourselves as part of that process. We take a microcosm—the notion of proper food handling, prevention of cross contamination related foodborne illness—and provide an innovative and easy-to-use solution, and all the training and collateral materials associated with the solution that explain the proper use. We also provide test kits so that if the health inspector wants an in-the-moment proof that our product is doing what the label says it does, [the retailer] can provide that at a moments notice. It becomes more of a service proposition than simply a product-driven solution.
FST: Where do you see sustainable products fitting into the space?
Schiering: This also boils down to education, because the perception of disposables is that they’re wasteful, when in fact they needn’t be any more costly than existing solutions.
If you’re using a linen service, there’s a cost associated with renting towels, but there’s a higher cost associated with wasting towels. So if a towel ends up in a gym bag or in the trash because of overuse and/or abuse, there’s a significant upcharge for not returning that towel to the rental agency. That’s what we call the hidden cost or the dirty little secret of rag and bucket sanitizing. When you factor that in, and everyone [retailers] experiences that type of loss, and you look at the fact that sanitizing wipes kill pathogens trapped in the wipe as well as whatever it is coming into contact with at the surface, thereby enabling it to be used on multiple surfaces without causing cross contamination—the cost aligns very closely. And of course it’s a more value-added guest experience than a dirty rag being used from table to table, which is not preventing cross contamination.
Speaking to the environmental piece: At the moment, we’re actually fairly well ahead of the industry. It varies chain to chain—some chains are doing a better job than others, because it’s part of their corporate culture. But by providing solutions that are leveraging either recyclable substrates or compostable substrates, we provide greater opportunity to reduce the environmental impact often associated with disposable products. If a retailer is working with a waste management partner that can handle industrial compostable products or non-solid state recyclables, we have solutions that are appropriate for those operations, so that we’re not just adding to landfills but rather essentially recycling and/or regenerating the products that are being used, and at no greater cost.
Most retailers haven’t gotten there yet. It speaks directly to corporate culture and corporate mission of the end user. We deliberately target customers who are a little bit ahead of the curve when it comes to “green technology or “green behavior”. And so when the rest of the industry catches up, we’re more than ready to serve them with products that meet those needs.
FST: Where do consumers fit into the picture, especially has industry moves away from traditional methods in food safety?
Schiering: About a decade ago, consumers started demanding that retailers like Walmart, Target, and local grocers provide a means of sanitizing shopping carts when they walk into their local retail establishments. There were myriad news reports about the germs and potential for contamination and illness arising from the often used and rarely cleaned implements—these vehicles for placing your groceries. We answered the call a decade ago, and at one time it was a significant piece of our business. It continues to be a marketplace we serve, albeit a much commoditized one. But the rise in that solution would not have taken place if not for consumers advocating for a better way.
We’re starting to create a presence on Facebook and other social media outlets to remind consumers that it’s up to them in many cases to ask for, if not demand a more effective, more pleasing way of ensuring their safety in dining establishments. Unfortunately, incidents like what we saw at the large Mexican food service retailer do ultimately play a part in that consumer advocacy, albeit a negative one, because we are a reactive society. But by presenting a positive message and sharing alternatives in the absence of citing examples or shaming retailers through the problem, we believe that will be one of the keys to changing perceptions at the retail level.
In an age where news is reported instantly, those outside the food industry have a heightened awareness and concern over their favorite brands’ commitment to food safety. Conversely, every food industry’s safety and quality operations teams are more than likely putting measures in place to tighten up their supply chain controls and re-evaluate their own food safety programs to ensure that their companies don’t become the next headline.
You better believe suppliers and their customers alike are also re-evaluating their ability to quickly, and effectively, respond to such an incident with the data and records needed to determine root causes—and with good merit, especially if you take a step back and really think about what is needed when a response or inquiry comes in surrounding a Chipotle-type food safety incident. Responses to such incidents typically fall along the lines of:
Evidence of current food safety plan, including comprehensive risk analysis, HACCP/HARPC plan, validation studies or documents
Inspection data and documents on your suppliers, including onsite inspection, transportation and product receiving inspections, complete with non-compliance reports and CAPAs for the last six months
All data records relative to your internal processing CCP(s) or equivalent, including monitoring frequencies and all non-compliance reports, complete with their CAPAs for the last six months
All regulatory and non-regulatory audit reports or actions, including non-compliance reports and their CAPAs
Additional available internal or external laboratory evidence that demonstrates environmental monitoring of your facilities and resulting continuous improvement and sanitation validation for the last two years
Additional internal or external laboratory pathogen monitoring programs for field, transportation, raw material supply and finished products, etc. as evidence to support your food safety program
The sheer volume of records, data and information needed in such an on-demand short timeframe can be extremely overwhelming. Without quick access to the critical records needed to determine root cause or, more importantly, thwart an incident from expanding, food safety and quality operations should be taking a close look at how they are managing their food safety data records and reports.
Are binders full of documents, or a combination of paper/silo data records going to suffice when it comes to inquiries, responses (and audits)? Or, is there a better way to manage food safety and quality data to ensure not only data is accessible, but also that food safety programs are working?
One sure bet is that there will be a higher number of audits and inquiries. Is your team and/or supplier prepared for the increase of these types of activities?
Inquiry: A request for a single or series of data and or documents usually related to a specific FSQA event or question
Response: The collected data, data reports, document or document reports related to a specific audit or inquiry
Audit: An activity that reviews one or many elements of a food safety plan to assure that the plan is complete, performed as described and meets the food safety design as intended. Audits are known and expected activities to review such safety plan elements even though the actual audit date and time may be known or unknown
We all know that audits are often lengthy exercises, yet they are still predictable. On the other hand, inquiries can be more difficult in that information requests may involve a very deep dive into a very specific area of inquiry.
In all honesty, if inquiries or responses or audits have to be planned for in advance, then you are not prepared. In order to always be prepared, it’s imperative to have better systems in place to manage any type of internal or external examination of your food safety and quality information. Regardless of whether it is an audit, response or inquiry, it is important to have easy access to records, verify that your programs are working, have corrective actions in place, and show visibility (and transparency) in your operation.
Thus it all comes back to how you or your suppliers are managing food safety records day in, day out. If FSQA operations are still relying on manual-based food safety and quality management processes versus food safety and quality management technologies, then chances are that you’re reacting to latent results, and you’re not able to identify trends and opportunities for improvement. The burden to manage inquires, responses or audits—as they continue to grow in cadence—will become overwhelming.
Without a doubt, the Chipotle effect is being felt throughout the industry. There will be increased accountability to ensure an adequate food safety program is in place and verification that the program is working. It will become even more imperative—and expected—that data and records are readily available to efficiently respond to inquiries, responses and audits.
The CDC has declared the Chipotle E. coli outbreaks over. As for its origin(s), we may never know. Yesterday the CDC provided its latest and final update regarding the two outbreaks, stating that investigators used whole genome sequencing to dig a bit deeper, and isolates tested from those sickened in the second outbreak (sickened five people in three states) were not genetically related to isolates from the people who fell ill in the initial outbreak (55 sickened in 11 states, with 21 hospitalizations).
“We are pleased to have this behind us and can place our full energies to implementing our enhanced food safety plan that will establish Chipotle as an industry leader in food safety,” said Steve Ells, founder, chairman and co-CEO of Chipotle in a company statement. “We are extremely focused on executing this program, which designs layers of redundancy and enhanced safety measures to reduce the food safety risk to a level as near to zero as is possible. By adding these programs to an already strong and proven food culture, we strongly believe that we can establish Chipotle as a leader in food safety just as we have become a leader in our quest for the very best ingredients we can find.”
While the outbreaks “appear” to be over, the fact that the source will remain a mystery is a bit unsettling. All the CDC can tell us is that the “likely” source was a common meal item or ingredient served at Chipotle Mexican Grill. Regulatory officials simply cannot trace a food or ingredient to the outbreak. “When a restaurant serves foods with several ingredients that are mixed or cooked together and then used in multiple menu items, it can be more difficult for epidemiologic studies to identity the specific ingredient that is contaminated,” according to the CDC’s final update on the outbreak.
The most recent reported illness started on December 1, 2015. No deaths were reported as a result of either of the outbreaks.
Today Chipotle released its Q4 2015 earnings, reporting a 6.8% decrease in revenue ($997.5 million) compared to Q4 2014. However, 2015 revenue increased 9.6% over 2014.
The problems are not over for the restaurant chain either. On January 28, Chipotle was served another subpoena that broadened the scope of the existing DOJ investigation. The company stated the following in a release, “The new subpoena requires us to produce documents and information related to company-wide food safety matters dating back to January 1, 2013, and supersedes the subpoena served in December 2015 that was limited to a single Chipotle restaurant in Simi Valley, California. We intend to fully cooperate in the investigation.”
As of late, the problems for Chipotle have been endless. 2015 was a year of several Salmonella, norovirus and E. coli outbreaks for the restaurant chain. With the first full week of the new year wrapped up, 2016 is off to perhaps an even rockier start, with news of the company being hit with both a class action lawsuit and a federal grand jury subpoena.
Company stockholder Susie Ong filed a civil complaint against Chipotle on January 8, stating that the company made false or misleading statements and failed to disclose that its “quality controls were inadequate to safeguard consumer and employee health.” Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the complaint calls out a norovirus outbreak that occurred in August in Simi Valley, California; a Salmonella outbreak in Minnesota that sickened 64 people; the closure of all company restaurants in Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington in November following an E.coli outbreak; and the highly-publicized norovirus outbreak that sickened more than 140 students from Boston College in Brighton, Massachusetts last month.
Ong’s complaint also mentions the federal grand jury subpoena, which Chipotle made public two days prior (January 6) in an SEC filing. Served in December, the subpoena is part of a criminal investigation by FDA and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California into the Simi Valley norovirus outbreak, which sickened about 100 patrons and employees (some reports state that more than 200 people fell ill). Ong’s lawsuit states that health inspectors found “dirty and inoperative equipment, equipment directly linked to the sewer, and other sanitary and health violations” at the Simi Valley restaurant.
With December’s norovirus outbreak in Brighton and the CDC’s announcement that it was further investigating five new cases of E. coli that were reported the month prior, restaurant sales were down 30% for the month, according to the SEC filing. Ong adds up all of these unfortunate events in the lawsuit, stating, “As a result of defendants’ wrongful acts and omissions, and the precipitous decline in the market value of the Company’s securities, Plaintiff and other Class members have suffered significant losses and damages.”
Chipotle has not yet publicly commented on the lawsuit.
Earlier in December, Chipotle called attention to improvements it was making to its food safety program by bringing in IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group to reevaluate its processes in an effort to prevent future outbreaks. Clearly that was not enough.
Food companies take heed. 2016 is off with a bang, and not in a good way. Last week industry was also buzzing about the DOJ’s investigation into Blue Bell Creameries over the deadly Listeria outbreak. FDA and the other federal powers-that-be are making it very clear that negligence will no longer be tolerated (Or should I say, alleged negligence, in this case). Compliance, accountability, and above all, ethical behavior are at the heart of the matter.
Will it all come tumbling down for Chipotle? It remains to be seen whether the company will be able to recover from these issues. And maybe an even bigger question is, who will be next?
After bringing in IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group to reevaluate its practices after an E.coli outbreak that sickened dozens, Chipotle Mexican Grill announced it is implementing a program to ensure it achieves “the highest level of safety possible”. According to a press release issued today, Chipotle is enhancing its food safety program and taking the following actions:
Conducting high-resolution DNA-based testing of all fresh produce prior to shipment to restaurants
Conducting end-of-shelf-life testing of ingredient samples to ensure quality specifications are maintained throughout ingredient shelf life
Engaging in continuous improvements throughout its supply chain leveraging test result data to measure its vendor and supplier performance
Improving internal employee training related to food safety and food handling
The CDC and FDA investigation of the E. coli outbreak is ongoing and the source of the outbreak is still unknown.
Unfortunately, quite often we are reminded of the vulnerabilities throughout the food supply chain. The latest E. coli outbreak linked to Chipotle restaurants in Oregon and Washington once again has consumers and the food safety industry on edge about traceability and a company’s ability to quickly identify the source of a serious outbreak. According to the CDC’s most recent update, laboratory testing is ongoing to find the DNA fingerprint of the bacteria. Concerning as this may be, no deaths have been reported thus far, but 42 people have been reported ill and 14 have been hospitalized in Washington and Oregon. In the most recent statement released on Chipotle’s website, the company said it is “aggressively” taking steps to address the problem, including by conducting deep cleaning and sanitization of its restaurants as well as environmental testing in its restaurants, and replacing all food items in the establishments that it closed “out of an abundance of caution”.
What if this were a situation of intentional contamination? Would Chipotle or any other company in this type of scenario really be prepared? These questions were posed by Rod Wheeler, CEO of The Global Food Defense Institute during a recent conversation with Food Safety Tech about food defense, and food tampering and intentional adulteration. Wheeler and Bruce Lesniak, president of Lesniak & Associates, shared their views on the threats that the food industry is facing and why companies need to have a strong plan in place to prepare for an attack on the food supply.
During next week’s Food Safety Consortium conference, Rod Wheeler will moderate the Ask the Experts session, “Engaging Food Tampering Discussion Surrounding Food Defense” on Wednesday, November 18. LEARN MOREFood Safety Tech:What challenges do you see companies facing in the area of food tampering and adulteration?
Rod Wheeler: Our food supply is wide open. It accounts for 13% of the overall U.S. GDP. One thing we know about terrorists is that they want to affect our financial markets. What’s the best way to do that? You attack the 13% GDP – and what infrastructure is that? It’s our wireless systems, airline systems, transportation systems, medical supply, or our food and agricultural supply. Those are the top areas in which we need to focus, and we have to make sure the food & agriculture supply remains safe and secure in the United States.
On 9/11 the world changed, and the challenge for us becomes, within all of our 18 infrastructures, but how have we changed? Do we continue to do business the same way we always have, even prior to 9/11? Over the past few years, we’ve seen a significant increase in terroristic activity around the world—from France to Syria to Yemen to Pakistan. Here in the United States, we have to be mindful of what is happening.
We’ve always had food safety programs: HACCP, HARPC, GFSI, SQF, etc.—those are good for unintentional contamination. But what happens if someone wants to intentionally place a deadly contaminant into a product?
In this country, on a daily basis we see contaminations occurring. We were recently notified of a massive outbreak of E. coli that has occurred throughout the Chipotle system: 47 Chipotle stores have been closed. What does that mean? Is that just a food safety issue? What if that E. coli could have been intentionally grown in a test tube and placed into the food supply? Going forward, we have a duty and an obligation to look at these things, not just at face value but think about whether they are intentional events.
FST: Where are the biggest holes within food defense plans?
Wheeler: With more than 15 years of visiting food processing facilities, agricultural farms, dairy farms, and dairy processing facilities, the biggest concern that resonates with me is the fact that the culture of security is not there. The culture of security is simply security awareness—not planning. People in food plants are being taught to be mindful not vigilant. The largest of food companies have well thought out and active safety and defense plans, and their employees are educated, trained and empowered. We find that this falls off sharply with the mid-sized and small manufacturers and suppliers. All food providers must have a comprehensive and strategic security plan that is active and measureable.
For example, let’s say a contractor is walking though a food plant. You have worked in that plant for five years but have never seen this person before. Would you question that person about their credentials? Are people thinking about the things they can personally do to reduce or mitigate the risk… are they empowered?
So, the question is “what do you do when/if”: This is one of the topics we will be discussing at the [Food Safety Consortium] conference. It’s interesting that when we present this scenario to the management of a food company, many answer back with a blank stare. We ask, do you shut down your facility? Do you notify your customers? Do you notify the national media? This question goes to the root of the company’s security culture and the strength of its strategic planning. Until we develop the necessary plans, processes and protocols to respond proactively, we will continue to remain vulnerable.
FST: Do you think many food companies assume something catastrophic won’t happen to them?
Wheeler: I always ask why it is that we don’t anticipate these things in advance. People are complacent. “It’s not going to have happen here,” they say. “What terrorist would come to our small town and do this? We’re just a small mom and pop [business].”
Recently, I received a call from a 17-employee company in Tennessee. This particular company processes honey for 100 large box retail stores. I received a call from the CEO who said, “My client wants us to have one of those vulnerability things.” He was referencing the vulnerability assessment. He said, “I don’t know why they’d want us to have one of those. We’re a small company down here in Tennessee, why does my client think some terrorist would come here?” The fact is, attackers will find the weakest link to attack: The small honey company is not the target; they are the vessel by which the attackers get to the primary target, and in this case, the big box retailer. The big box retailer/supplier is the target and the simplest, most effective way to get to them is through the hundreds of small, low to no protection suppliers.
These are the issues we need to enlighten and educate companies about; we need to get them thinking differently, because this way of thinking is completely different. If you ask someone who’s been in this industry for years, they’ll say, we never had to worry about locking our doors, or use biometrics to gain access to certain areas. We never had to think about these things in the Food & Ag supply before.
During our front line training course, we place a significant amount of focus on the food plant blending areas and why it is the number one threat area for intentional/unintentional contamination of our food supply in the United States. The blending area is exposed to a number of vulnerabilities and once attacked, the tainted ingredients are spread among numerous products that once distributed, are not necessarily quickly traced once they are blended into the final product.
Bruce Lesniak: The consequences of such an emergency are multifaceted; they affect the consumer and their product confidence, the manufacturer through recall and the retailer through recall, brand damage and loss of consumer loyalty. Often, this ripple effect begins with the small supplier and works its way upstream to affect the entire process.
We are seeing this scenario unfold in real time with Chipotle—this is huge in the food industry. FDA has not been able to determine exactly where that genetic fingerprint has originated resulting in location closures, shaken consumer confidence and brand damage. –Rod Wheeler
FST: What will it take the industry to wake up to what could become a serious reality?
Wheeler: Unfortunately it’s probably going to take a major incident for people to wake up and smell the coffee. With that said, we firmly believe that it is critical to awaken the sleeping giants before something happens. We must increase the awareness and provide education to heighten the reality of what can potentially happen and promote proactive engagement of risk mitigation.
FST: In the context of FSMA, are companies prepared for the compliance stage?
Wheeler: Over the years, I’ve seen a number of companies begin to ramp up security at their facilities. But a number of them are doing it because they realize they need to comply with the food defense elements of FSMA; the larger companies are driving compliance and are requiring that their suppliers comply. But I think convincing companies about “Why” this is important, is the challenge. Often times companies will say, “we’re doing this training”, or “we’re doing this vulnerability assessment because it’s a requirement of FSMA.”
We feel that if being compliant is your “Why “reason, then you are spending time and money for the entirely wrong reason. You don’t do vulnerability assessment or training in food defense because you want to comply with the law. You do it because you want to protect your company and the consumer from the reality of what can happen and proactively work to avoid a threat.
Lesniak: We see the adoption trend take hold as it has traditionally, in three phases. First are the early adopters—they understand the importance of compliance for the right reasons and the need for food defense, Second are those who feel the urgency to comply due to a compelling issues (an incident or have been instructed to do so by larger suppliers in order to retain contracts), and third are those who will come kicking and screaming.
Wheeler: A lot of the requirements of FSMA were generated as a result of the PCA event in 2009. The prosecution and subsequent conviction of the Parnell brothers isn’t the last prosecution we’re going to see for someone violating a food safety protocol. This is the first, and it’s a wake up call.
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