2015 was a rough year for Chipotle Mexican Grill as scores of consumers were sickened with E. coli and hundreds more fell ill with norovirus. The company went to extensive efforts to eliminate any threats to food safety and launched extensive marketing and advertising campaigns to bring back leery consumers.
So far into 2016, Chipotle’s headaches haven’t ended.
Last month, Chipotle’s sales plunged by another 23%, leading to the company’s first loss since it became a public company in January 2006. The company posted a net loss of $26.4 million, compared to a net income of $122.6 million in the same quarter in 2015.
Even with sales tumbling and consumers not willing to return to Chipotle, the company is passing the blame.
In a letter dated Dec. 21, the company’s lawyer, Bryant “Corky” Messner, demanded the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) scale back its warnings on eating at Chipotle.
Messner argued portions of the CDC’s reports were “patently inaccurate” and "unnecessarily intensified the public's concern" about potentially tainted food. Click here for the full letter.
The CDC has responded, directly addressing Messner’s accusations:
Messner: “Despite no ongoing threat, with four weeks passing between the last exposure date and the most recent web update, the web updates did not serve to protect the public and, in fact, led to inaccurate conclusions.”
CDC: “Reported illness onset dates in these two outbreaks range from October 19, 2015 to December 1, 2015. Given that two to three weeks typically pass between when a person becomes ill to when the illness is reported to PulseNet and the most recent illness onset date of December 1, 2015, we disagree that there was “no ongoing threat” at the time of the web postings, particularly since the investigation of these two outbreaks linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill Restaurants has not identified a specific cause. A public health professional would not conclude that transmission had ceased until at least several weeks after the last reported case.”
Messner: “Chipotle has concerns that various web updates do not meet the standards promulgated by the CDC. Each web update must stand on its own and independently comply with the CDC guidelines, and it appears that many of the web updates do not.”
CDC: “Each web posting by CDC followed and complied with all applicable agency guidelines and policies. This included a formal review and clearance process before release as specified in ‘Guidelines for Ensuring the Quality of Information Disseminated to the Public.’”
Messner: “The CDC’s December 4, 2015 web update misinformed the public as the current status of the outbreak” and “… in the web update CDC made no effort to advise the public that these ill individuals had no known connection with Chipotle.”
CDC: “Several reasons could explain why ill people included in such investigations may not report consuming the food item causing the outbreak. First, these people may not remember eating at Chipotle Mexican Grill before they got sick, but actually did. It can be several weeks from the time a person gets sick until they are confirmed to be part of an outbreak and interviewed by the health department. Second, they may have gotten sick by “secondary transmission,” that is, through close contact with someone else who got sick after eating at a Chipotle Mexican Grill. There is evidence of secondary transmission as the mode of infection for at least two people in this investigation who did not report eating at Chipotle before becoming sick. Third, it could be due to a contaminated ingredient served at Chipotle restaurants having been sent to a limited number of other places, where the person ate the contaminated ingredient and then became ill.”
Messner: “… Chipotle does not believe the web updates between November 4, 2015, and November 6, 2015 provided the public with information that was clear and useful, as mandated by CDC regulations.”
CDC: “The web postings served to protect and inform the public as well as inform public health and regulatory partners at federal, state, and local agencies about this ongoing outbreak investigation in three ways. First, information provided in these web postings provided people who may have become ill after eating at Chipotle Mexican Grill locations with information they might need to seek diagnosis and treatment for a potentially serious illness (E. coli O26 infection); medical attention would also entail provision of information on measures to prevent secondary transmission of STEC infection to other close contacts such as family members. Second, this information also could assist in identifying additional ill people who might provide critical information essential to determine the specific cause of the outbreak. Third, the web postings provided information the public might use to protect themselves by choosing to avoid certain food exposures associated with the outbreak.”