Chipotle Addresses Brand Fall-Out in Wake of E. Coli Outbreak

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Chipotle customers

Chipotle’s “Food With Integrity” promise may be quietly serving a bit of GMO-free humble pie these days after an e. coli outbreak at eight of its restaurants in greater Seattle and Portland, Ore., added to a string of setbacks for the previously high-flying chain with what some in the industry deride as “better-than-others” positioning.

After its food sickened 39 customers, Chipotle closed 43 outlets in those two metro areas and has been “scrubbing them down.” In addition to updating consumers on its actions on its website, it hired consultants to tighten up its food safety, Reuters reported. And fortunately, the US Centers for Disease Control hasn’t received reports of e. coli poisonings at Chipotle in any other state.

“The safety of our customers and integrity of our food supply has always been our highest priority,” said Chipotle Co-CEO Steve Ells in a statement, implicitly underscoring the potential damage this bacteria outbreak could cause in terms of the chain’s brand equity.

“If there are opportunities to do better, we will push ourselves to find them and enhance our already high standards for food safety … It is our greatest priority to ensure the safety of all the food we serve and maintain our customers’ confidence in eating at Chipotle.”

That confidence has been challenged lately. This was the third foodborne illness event this year for the brand, which has been touting its food safety and handling practices in videos released on YouTube, Nation’s Restaurant News reported.

It also followed Chipotle’s withdrawal of its carnitas pork menu items at most of its restaurants early this year because a supplier didn’t meet its animal welfare standards, and only now is pork returning to its menu. And in August, a lawsuit accused Chipotle of making false claims that its ingredients were free of GMOs, because some meat may come from animals that fed on GMO products, while Chipotle already acknowledged that its soft drinks, from third parties, may contain them.

Meanwhile, after reporting double-digit increases in traffic in 2014, Chipotle’s sales appeared to be slowing somewhat already in the third quarter, the publication noted, though analysts remained optimistic that the fundamentals for the 1,900-unit chain are strong.

Another concern for the chain’s outlook—the World Health Organization recently proclaimed meat, from grilled to unprocessed, as a potential carcinogen. While a big part of Chipotle’s success comes from its commitment to sustainability, its fresh and high-quality ingredients and non-GMO and all-natural food sources as superior to those of traditional fast feeders, it still joins McDonald’s and other rivals in its dependence on meat.

Chipotle notably has stuck its thumb in the eye of some of these rivals with purpose-driven marketing such as The Scarecrow short film in 2013which castigated industrially-processed foods. So it’s little surprise that the e. coli outbreak provided some just desserts for one group that’s been giving Chipotle a hard time with articles such as this and this that some might characterize as a smear campaign.

The Center for Consumer Freedom Chipotle e. coli

The Center for Consumer Freedom, a Washington, D.C.-based organization backed by Coca-Cola, Monsanto, Tyson Foods and others with a stake in the GMO debate, has been turning up the pressure on Chipotle. Previously, its website ChubbyChipotle.com criticized Chipotle for its “high-calorie” food. Now, the group’s new full-page ad in the New York Post states“You can’t spell ‘Chipotle’ without ‘e. coli'” — just another

[Images via Chipotle/Instagram and the Center for Consumer Freedom’s website]

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