Chipotle's Food Safety Nightmare Has Led It to Drop Locally Sourced Produce

Amidst food safety scandals that have resulted in E. coli, salmonella, and norovirus outbreaks across America, shuttering dozens of stores, what’s a quesarito lover to do?

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Dec 17 2015, 4:00pm

Photo via Flickr user sirira2000

Chipotle has been feeling the burrito blues this year.

In just 12 months, the company's halcyon days of countless customers powering down baby-sized tortilla bundles without worry seems like a thing of the past. Amid food safety scandals that have resulted in E. coli, salmonella, and norovirus outbreaks across America, shuttering dozens of stores, what's a quesarito lover to do?

And, lest one forget, carnitas were taken off the menu at about 40 percent of Chipotles earlier this year when the chain announced a pork supplier didn't meet the chain's animal welfare standards. Even Wall Street has felt the heat usually reserved for Tabasco daredevils with something to prove, as Chipotle stock has fallen nearly 200 points due to the bad burrito news.

Now, company spokespeople have said that the company, a champion of local, GMO-free food (they caught flak for that, too), will once again process and ship tomatoes, cilantro, and lettuce from a central kitchen in order to fight foodborne illness.

Chipotle hasn't been able to identify the source of its E. coli outbreak, but officials think that produce was the likely culprit. By centralizing much of the company's produce processing, Chipotle can better uniformly prep the produce, test it for harmful bacteria, and then ship it off to stores.

READ: Mexican Cilantro Imports Have Been Banned Due to Fecal Contamination

But doing so goes against what in part allowed the company to differentiate itself from its larger, more corporate brethren—chopping fruit and vegetables onsite gives the feeling that there is more actual cooking going on.

Amid ongoing turmoil, Chipotle higher-ups are trying to keep everyone calm. Chipotle co-founder Steve Ells, who recently issued an apology for the food outbreak and placed "I am deeply sorry" ads in newspapers across the country that also promised that Chipotle would be a leader in food safety, says the quality of the new produce will be equal to what Chipotle has used in the past.

"You could bring fresh cilantro right out of the field into the restaurant and wash it there. I don't think that would be any better than washing the cilantro in the commissary," Ells told investors. "And if dried properly and then sealed in the bags, it's a delicious product."

Ells also noted that avocados and jalapeños will still be processed in stores.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Chipotle had used a centralized produce preparation facility until last year but stopped because executives said produce prepared onsite at the restaurant tasted better. The company has been using onsite dicing machines to dice tomatoes for the last year or so.

READ: We Spoke to the Man Who Wants to Marry a Burrito

It all seems to fly in the face of the company that promoted itself as the healthy, locally sourced alternative to fast food. Many of the company's claims about healthy eating and plays toward the enlightened consumer seem tenuous of late. Back in February, The New York Times took a look at the average Chipotle order and found it to have more than 1,000 calories and nearly an entire day's worth of sodium. And Chipotle had never disclosed how much of its produce it buys locally, but The Wall Street Journal reports that Ells told investors recently that it amounts to just about 10 percent of its produce.

When Forbes is running articles titled "Chipotle: The Long Defeat of Doing Nothing Well," it's time for some soul-searching.

It looks like the road for Chipotle will be a long and arduous one back to the burrito throne, but thankfully for them, love for a burrito is a strong bond. And though the company's financials have taken a hit, it hasn't slowed them one bit. Chipotle is expanding faster than ever, and plans to open between 215 and 225 stores next year.