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Chipotle switches to offense

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Slammed by two food-safety crises, Chipotle Mexican Grill mobilized today to halt an exodus of customers, reassuring a mass TV audience the chain is a safe place to eat while apologizing that such guarantees are even necessary.

In practical terms, few new safety measures were taken. But executives turned a brighter spotlight on the precautions that have been adopted to date to prevent another E.coli or norovirus contamination. They also emphasized the pledge aired earlier in the week to make Chipotle the safest option in the restaurant business.

Co-CEO Steve Ells seized a high-profile podium to sound the reassurances, appearing on NBC’s popular Today Show morning news program. Ells, Chipotle’s founder, apologized to victims of the E.coli outbreak that afflicted guests in nine states, but commented that there’s a “silver lining” to the situation. Interviewer Matt Lauer jumped on the assertion in disbelief there could be an upside to an epidemic.

 

Ells backtracked, explaining that he was referring to the steps Chipotle has taken to safeguard customers in the wake of the outbreak. Every aspect of operations, from sourcing to food prep, has been checked and rethought to enhance safety, he asserted.

He also pledged that the unit in Boston where more than 120 customers were sickened with norovirus would not open until the restaurant had been sanitized and all of its employees had been checked to verify they were free of the germ.

However, he hedged when Lauer asked if there could be other victims, noting how contagious norovirus can be.

The safety measures Ells mentioned on the show were recounted in fuller detail on Chipotle’s website. The chain provided a narrative of the E.coli outbreak, from the first notification of customers getting sick to health authorities finding no traces of E.coli in Chipotle’s restaurants or among its employees.

Among the safety steps it recounted are throwing away all the food from the 43 stores that were shuttered, and testing food products, equipment and surfaces in other units. In all, some 2,500 tests were conducted and the safety procedures of Chipotle’s 2,000 domestic units were audited, according to the Dec. 9 posting.

The unit in Boston where norovirus was found has been closed since Monday. Local health officials have rescinded its operations permit.  

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