Chipotle's problems are bigger than its messaging
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“Do we really have the problem we think we have?" asked science and health writer Sheri Fink on the side of one of Chipotle Mexican Grill’s familiarly philosophical takeaway bags.

It’s a question Chipotle founder and CEO Steve Ells should take to heart in light of the chain's latest outbreak of illness.

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This spring, Chipotle reinforced its better-for-you branding with an announcement that it had become the nation’s first major restaurant to prepare its food without added colors, flavors or preservatives and as always, free of GMOs or antibiotics. A world free of scary-sounding chemicals would be just a burrito away, the Fortune 1000 restaurant implied.

But as reports surfaced last week that 135 customers have now experienced symptoms of norovirus after visiting a Chipotle location just beyond the Beltway, for formerly favorite fast casual giant, the answer to Fink’s question should be a resounding “No.”

After intermittent cases of foodborne illnesses in 2016 and Chipotle-linked outbreaks of E. coli in fourteen states the year prior, the fact of the matter stands that marketing gimmicks like “GMO-free” and “preservative-free” don’t make food any safer. At worst, the feel-good fluff leaves both customers and employees with a false sense of security over the safety and quality of such ingredients.

According to Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans believe organic produce is healthier, and many erroneously believe it to be safer than conventional or genetically engineered alternatives. Yet Chipotle’s most recent shareholder report was right to caution that the chain “may still be at a higher risk for food-borne illness occurrences than some competitors due to our greater use of fresh, unprocessed produce and meats” and a preference for traditional cooking methods. A disclosure filed by Chipotle in 2015 identified local and organic products as additional sources of contamination. 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Certain organic practices like cultivating produce with “all-natural” fertilizer (manure) risk exposing organic fruits and vegetables to fecal microbes like E. coli and norovirus. Alarmingly, a 2014 Yale University study identified organic manure as a significant source of antibiotic-resistant bacteria — even if cattle producing the manure had never been exposed to antibiotics themselves.

But dirty produce is far from the organic industry’s greatest sham.

The primary reason consumers choose organics is to avoid pesticide residues, and concerned shoppers are willing to pay a hefty premium — over 300 percent, in some cases — in that endeavor. While synthetic pesticides are generally not permitted in organic agriculture (less than roughly one dozen exceptions allowed under the National Organics Program), organic pesticides are far from safe.

In a head-to-head comparison of popular organic and synthetic pesticides, copper sulfate and pyrethrum, the “natural” pest killers, were both toxic at lower doses and had a more severe impact on non-target species than their synthetic counterparts. Even glyphosate, arguably the most harried weed-killing chemical, is 40 times less toxic than caffeine. 

As cellular and molecular biologist Dr. Christie Wilcox asserts in Scientific American, “there is nothing safe about the chemicals used in organic agriculture. Period.”

But when the guise of being pesticide-free convinces an employee (or consumer, for that matter) to devote less attention to washing organic fruits and vegetables, the benefits of green messaging are flushed away faster than… well… you get the picture.

Overcoming public health threats and instituting real food safety programs require more than just a millennial-friendly marketing campaign. 

So while Chipotle claims it’s “working to cultivate a better world” with every bowl and burrito, some might imagine that world to be free from the diarrhea, nausea and vomiting one customer described after her son’s ill-fated encounter with a chicken bowl. 

But until Chipotle goes back to the basics on the farm and in the restaurant, we’ll assume their microbial misfortunes are equally as sourced “with integrity."

Dr. Joseph Perrone is the Chief Science Officer at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Accountability in Science, which provides a balanced look at the science behind sensational headlines, and seeks to debunk junk science and correct public misconceptions. 


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