When the burrito chain Chipotle unveiled plans to go GMO-free, co-CEO Steve Ells explained, "They say these ingredients are safe, but I think we all know we'd rather have food that doesn't contain them (http://tiny.cc/…)."
Now, seven months after Ells let this slithering innuendo out of its cage, customers are getting a second chance to consider Chipotle's dedication to food safety. You have to wonder what lesson they'll learn from their restaurant's repeated brushes with E. coli, salmonella and norovirus.
Since last July several hundred people in a dozen states have become ill after dining at Chipotle (http://tiny.cc/…). One of the outbreaks was traced to tomatoes, two others to ill workers. In still other cases authorities think the cause is a "common meal item or ingredient" but they aren't sure which (http://tiny.cc/…).
Successive waves of food-borne illness would sap public confidence in any eatery. Chipotle is particularly vulnerable, having placed itself on such a pedestal. In its moralizing marketing, the burrito purveyor touts itself as holier-than-other restaurants. It produces videos attacking conventionally produced food and patting itself on the back for its superior standards. (http://tiny.cc/…).
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It goes without saying that those who have been targets of Chipotle's censure are reveling in schadenfreude, the taking of pleasure in another's misfortune. As Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins put it, "Chipotle's troubles may provide grim satisfaction for its competitors and onlookers who didn't care for the large side of sanctimony served up with their calorie-laden burritos (http://tiny.cc/…)."
But what are the chain's fans thinking? If they're fans because they like Chipotle's commitment to "responsibly grown" food, their reaction is unlikely to be a defensive "Stuff happens." The chain will lose customers.
Not everyone, of course. Some will find ways to hold Chipotle blameless. A few will even take refuge in conspiracy theories, like the one proclaiming Chipotle the victim of bioterrorism-sabotage attacks by biotech companies which, the theory claims, are planting E. coli in the chain's food in retaliation for its rejection of GMOs (http://tiny.cc/…). Bill Marler, the nation's most prominent food-safety attorney, has demanded that Chioptle denounce this conspiracy theory (http://tiny.cc/…).
Chipotle has yet to make that denunciation. The company does now say, categorically, "There is no connection between GMOs and any food safety issue (http://tiny.cc/…)." The chain thinks either vegetables or meat were probably to blame for the rash of E. coli incidents.
The best that's likely to come of all this is an increased awareness among Chipotle devotees that even fresh, organic, local produce and fresh, organic, animal-friendly local meat can cause disease. An understanding, in other words, that there are tradeoffs when it comes to food. An end to innocence.
Not that the company won't try harder to make the tradeoffs vanish. Chipotle promises to respond to the crisis with an "enhanced food safety program," including testing that "far exceeds requirements of state and federal regulatory agencies, as well as industry standards."
If Chipotle's executives are as smart as they seem to be, they won't stint on this enhanced program. Their brand is at stake. If they succeed, the company may win back some customers. Winning back credibility after this public-relations disaster will prove harder.
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