Chipotle restaurant workers fill orders for customers on the day that the company announced it will only use non-GMO ingredients in its food on April 27, 2015 in Miami, Florida. (Photo: Getty Images)Now, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. may be suffering from traits that helped define it. In its annual report in February, the company noted it may be at a higher risk for foodborne illnesses because of its use of "fresh produce and meats rather than frozen," and its traditional cooking methods," rather than "automation."
In the meantime, the company can't afford to wait and figure out what went wrong. Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said many of changes will be implemented in coming weeks, but that the company doesn't expect the taste of its food to suffer. Among the tweaks the company is making: —Cheese will now arrive in restaurants shredded. —Ingredients like onions will be macerated with lemon or lime juice to kill germs. —60 samples of every 2,000 pounds of steak will be tested before it's sent to stores. A similar testing program will be implemented for chicken in coming weeks. Pork and barbacoa beef are already delivered cooked in sealed bags. —Tomatoes, cilantro and other ingredients will be chopped in centralized locations, rather than in stores, so they can be tested. Chipotle has said in the past that tomatoes taste better when freshly diced in restaurants. After the outbreak, Chipotle co-CEO Steve Ells changed tunes: "If I'm eating a burrito that had tomatoes that were chopped in a central kitchen in the salsa or one that was chopped in house, I probably couldn't tell the difference," he said in an interview on CNBC last week. Not all chopping will be moved to centralized locations. Onions, for instance, would oxidize and smell bad if they were chopped days in advance, Samadpour said. So they will remain chopped on in restaurants, along with lemons, limes and jalapenos. All will now be blanched to kill germs.
"If I'm eating a burrito that had tomatoes that were chopped in a central kitchen in the salsa or one that was chopped in house, I probably couldn't tell the difference."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported five more cases of E. coli in later November linked to Chipotle, which it said might not be part of the larger outbreak (Photo: Getty Images)Still, the road for Chipotle to recover its image may be long. The industry got a wake-up call in 1993, when an E. coli outbreak linked to Jack in the Box sickened hundreds and left four dead. But the scare didn't extinguish the problem. After being tied to an E. coli outbreak in late 2006, Taco Bell's sales fell for multiple quarters. Barclays analyst Jeffrey Bernstein has noted Chipotle's recovery may take longer than other chains that have been hurt by foodborne illnesses, because social media has increased people's awareness of such incidents. He also noted that Chipotle's "Food With Integrity" slogan makes the E. coli cases all the more damaging. ___ Follow Candice Choi at www.twitter.com/candicechoi
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