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The Illusion of Safety

From the desk of Andrew Wingers

January 15, 2016

The recent foodborne illness outbreaks associated with Chipotle have put everyone in the food safety arena on alert. Since mid-2015, there have been 6 outbreaks linked to Chipotle*:

  • Seattle - E. coli O157:H7, July 2015, five sick people, source unknown;
  • Simi Valley, Calif. - Norovirus, August 2015, 234 sick people, source was sick employee;
  • Minnesota - Salmonella Newport, August and September 2015, 64 sick people, source was tomatoes but it is not known at what point in the field-to-fork chain the pathogen was introduced;
  • Nine states - E. coli O26, began October 2015 and not yet declared over, 53 sick people, source unknown. States involved are California, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington;
  • Boston - Norovirus, December 2015, 151 sick people, source was sick employee; and
  • Three states - E. coli O26, began December 2015 and not yet declared over, five sick people, source unknown. States involved are Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, but the sick Nebraska residents ate at a Chipotle location in Kansas.

Customers and suppliers alike are understandably concerned: As anyone who follows news about Chipotle's problems already knows, the effects of being implicated in a foodborne illness outbreak on a company's reputation and bottom-line are significant.

With such extreme goings-on, it's easy to overreact to the recent news. It's important to remember that our food supply is safer than ever before, and that most of those involved in providing food "from field to fork" consistently put food safety principles into practice.

When hearing such news, it's natural to want to do something - to want to make a change. But reactionary change is not the same as continuous improvement. Not every change to a food safety program is an improvement, and not every improvement leads to safer products.

It might make us feel better to do something - anything - in response to a food safety crisis, but it's not always clear if those changes will improve the safety of our products.