In 2015, the lack of queso as a menu option wasn’t the only reason people were not eating at Chipotle.
From October to December, 53 people in nine states were affected by an E. coli outbreak in Chipotle’s food. While the source of the outbreak still hasn’t been determined, Chipotle has since increased food preparation safety measures in the hopes of preventing further outbreaks.
No Chipotle outlets in Michigan have reported E. coli outbreaks.
“The silver lining of not knowing is that it has prompted us to look at every ingredient we use with an eye to improving food safety and handling practices for all ingredients on an ingredient-by-ingredient basis,” said Chris Arnold, Chipotle’s executive communications director.
Engineering senior Jake Fratkin, president of the Food Industry Student Association, said he’s noticed a decline in people going to the restaurants. He said he thinks the outbreak was an unfortunate combination of bad luck and failures in testing, noting the variability of the food industry in terms of how certain crops are raised each year.
“I have a lot of respect for what Chipotle does and how they operate,” he said. “So it is kind of sad for me to suddenly see people not going there, but it is their fault because you need to be super careful with huge diseases like listeria or E.coli that can literally make or break a business.”
Following the outbreak, sales decreased by 37 percent nationwide, in December, and Chipotle’s stock dropped 42 percent in the last three months.The company has now adopted intensive safety and washing procedures, including their decision to begin testing ingredients before the food enters the Chipotle chains.
“Among the things we are implementing in this area are washing and cutting tomatoes and lettuce in central kitchens rather than in our restaurants, shredding cheese in central kitchens rather than in our restaurants, changing the way chicken and steak are marinated and blanching certain produce items (such as avocados and limes) before they are used,” Arnold said.
While Fratkin said he believes the average student may be intimidated to eat there, he added that he’s looked into the new safety procedures and thinks Chipotle is now one of the safer places to eat.
“From a scientific point of view and health code testing, there is a lot worse that you can do than Chipotle,” he said. “Really like any large scale restaurant, the testing is a lot more rigorous than some of the smaller businesses.”
LSA freshmen Katie Biggs said, under some conditions, she still feels comfortable eating at the restaurant.
“If they had had (the virus) contained for a few weeks, then I would definitely go there,” Biggs said.
Arnold said he believes profit recovery will come with the enhanced safety plan, allowing the chain to establish itself as a leader in food safety.
Fratkin said he thinks that full recovery for the restaurant will take time. He compared this incident to a 1993 E. coli breakout at Jack in the Box which hospitalized 144 people who had consumed hamburgers from the chain, ultimately killing three of them.
“It took them like five years to return to that same level,” he said. “Just like any crazy thing you see in the media, it seems like it just takes time to change people’s perspectives.”
He also said he thinks the company’s leadership will dig them out of the slump of customers’ uncertainty and low sales.
“I think there are smart people running the company,” he said. “So they will recover. But, it just shows how variable the food industry is and little mistake or chance of luck can possibly take down a huge business.”
LSA sophomore Gabby Rubinstein said she hasn’t visited the Ann Arbor Chipotle since hearing about the outbreak.
“The whole thing made me too paranoid to go there,” she said. “Plus I was eating an unhealthy amount, so I needed to broaden my horizons anyway.”