Surviving the Foodapocalypse: A Look at How Foodborne Outbreaks Affect Restaurants

By: Karen Diep

Outbreaks are a dime a dozen in the food industry. Creativity and ingenuity is what we all strive for in the industry but what we often overlook is the safety of the food that we are serving. With the recent outbreaks happening with Chipotle, I wanted to put a spotlight on how outbreaks can affect the reputation and brand of a restaurant. As a restaurant, people expect food that’s delicious and would come back for more if they liked it enough but if you eat something from a restaurant that sends you to the toilet for three days straight, you start to reconsider how you feel about said restaurant and their food handling practices. There are many factors that affect the success of a restaurant. The quality of the food and service is a main part but safety and sanitation is an underlying factor. Here, we’ll take a look at how restaurants in the past have overcome foodborne outbreaks and if Chipotle–the king of mainstream mexican fast food–can survive its latest foodborne crisis.

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Source unknown

Right off the bat, we cannot start this conversation without mentioning the most notorious outbreak in American history which is the E. coli outbreak of hamburger patties at Jack in the Box in 1993. The outbreak afflicted over 400 people sending them to hospitals in California, Idaho, Washington and Nevada. But what made the outbreak especially tragic was that a significant majority of those afflicted were young children with four kids who died from the E. coli toxin. In just days, America’s children were getting sick from eating something as benign as a hamburger. This, of course, shocked the country and Jack in the Box plummeted in sales. (1,2)

Jack in the Box should have never been able to recover from the outbreak and yet it did. Today, Jack in the Box has over 2,200 locations in 21 states and is the leading fast food restaurant in health and safety procedures (3). What should have been the downfall of a company became an opportunity. Jack in the Box took the tragic event and turned their whole company around. Initially, they reacted poorly to the accusations and were hesitant to fess up to the allegations that the contamination came from them and blamed it on their supplier, the Vons Companies for the contaminated beef. They also attacked the Washington State Health Department saying that they did not provide clear statement of regulations (2).

Jack in the Box, then owned by Foodmaker Inc., was a dying brand. The outbreak gave them a chance to turn the brand around and revitalize the company. The company dumped their PR agency and hired Jody Powell who had been President Carter’s former press secretary. The company stated that they would help people pay for their hospital bills and had removed all the meat from the market and destroyed over 20,000 pounds of beef. Immediately after the outbreak, they hired David Theno, a microbiologist, to be VP of their Quality Assurance and Product Safety department and immediately established a HACCP plan–the first of its industry (4).

The company began to improve and in 1995, they hired a new PR agency from Santa Monica, Secret Weapon Marketing, to rebrand the company. At the time Jack in the Box was a dying brand that was becoming obsolete. They reinvented the company image by bringing back CEO Jack, the guy we see today on TV commercials and ads everywhere. CEO Jack was hip, cool, and sarcastic–much cooler than its fast food counterparts at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and a number of other quick service joints including Burger King and its creepy/scary company representative called The Burger King. (2)

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Jack in the Box’s CEO Jack may be annoyingly cheeky but at least he isn’t as creepy as Burger King’s Burger King (en.wikipedia.org)

With the success of Jack in the Box’s revitalization, it is clear that the impossible can be overcome with the right mindset. So it begs the question, can Chipotle recover? Recently, Chipotle has been pegged with many gripes. Before the most recent E. coli outbreak on the West coast, Chipotle was burdened with a Norovirus outbreak on the East coast which afflicted a number of Boston College students and many others totalling up to 140 people(5,6). Both outbreaks are unrelated but the back to back safety scares has put the burrito champion on crisis control.

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The media has been weighing in heavily on Chipotle for one reason and one reason only. Till now, Chipotle was considered as the robin hood of sustainable food in the emerging fast food and quick service industry dishing out food that is environmentally conscious and “putting the food back in fast food.” Pressure has been put on Chipotle because of its revolutionary concept of a fast food restaurant serving meats from small-scale farms with their slogan “Food with integrity.” In today’s times, this is atypical. Chipotle has built a strong reputation and loyal following but what makes the company unique has proven to be one its greatest weakness.

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Chipotle’s core value “Food with Integrity” with its star menu item: the Chipotle Burrito

Even before the company was hit by the outbreaks, they were suffering from supply issues. In July earlier this year, the restaurants stopped serving carnitas with pork due to a shortage (7). Even before then they had experienced shortages of meat before. The fact that the company sources from small scale farms also hinders the company’s ability to control the safety of their food. Much of what made Chipotle great is now turning back against the company. Although it is ideal it is to source meat from small-scale farms, it can often be overly optimistic for companies to expect complete safety and security of their product without proper standards in place.

Risk cannot be fully eliminated by just reducing the size of a farm. Chipotle and the rest of the industry has a lot to learn from its recent catastrophes. Sustainably sourced foods have become a recent trend in today’s times but just because a product is sustainable does not safeguard it from the biological, physical and chemical hazards that result from food production. As we, students, chefs and scientists in training, move through the industry we should never forget that good food is safe food. A product cannot be served if it kills a person right? It will be interesting to see where Chipotle goes in the coming year. A strong, revamped marketing scheme is sure to take place but it will be especially intriguing to see how they restructure their company in terms of food production and safety and how it will affect the overall quality of their products.

Now, to our readers: As a customer, what’s your opinion of the recent outbreaks at Chipotle? With everything that’s been happening, would you still go in for that burrito? Comment below and let us know!


 References:

1: Company News (1993). Company news; Jack in the Box’s Worst Nightmare. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1993/02/06/business/company-news-jack-in-the-box-s-worst-nightmare.html

2: Louis, J. (n.a.). Your Brand Wasn’t built in a Day. Beneath the Brand. Retrieved from http://www.talentzoo.com/beneath-the-brand/blog_news.php?articleID=7149

3: Jack in the Box Homepage: http://www.jackintheboxinc.com/

4: Entine, J. (1999). How “Jack” Turned Crisis into Opportunity. The Ethical Edge. Retrieved from http://www.jonentine.com/ethical_corporation/jack_crisis.htm

5: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Multistate Outbreaks of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O26 Infections Linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill Restaurants. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/2015/o26-11-15/index.html

6: Palma, K. (2015). Everything you need to know about norovirus, the illness afflicting Boston College students. Boston.com. Retrieved from http://www.boston.com/health/2015/12/10/everything-you-need-know-about-norovirus-the-illness-afflicting-boston-college-students/u2SdZNUKSk6rgZKyqA53VI/story.html

7: Giammona, C & Patton, L. (2015). Chipotle’s Biggest Strength is Suddenly its Biggest Weakness. Bloomberg.com. Retrieved from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-12-08/chipotle-s-greatest-strength-is-now-its-greatest-weakness-too

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