The Chipotle Mystery: Coincidence or Sabotage?

Seattle, Washington (TFC)Stock prices for Chipotle Mexican Grill continue to plummet as the company faces federal investigations, lawsuits from investors, and negative media attention relating to several food-borne illness outbreaks in restaurants across as many as nine states late last year. Previously boasting excellent sales and rising stock prices, Chipotle began a highly publicized campaign against genetically-modified foods and factory farming, and in the spring, vowed to remove all GMO ingredients from their menu. The popular chain has been a shining beacon in a fast-food wasteland for the health-savvy. Resulting in large part from extended media coverage of the outbreaks, Chipotle finished the year with sales down substantially, a first for the company since their launch in 2006. Unusual circumstances have prompted many non-GMO supporters to question whether these outbreaks are in fact, sabotage.

Image Source: Flickr, Creative Commons, Mike Mozart

Image Source: Flickr, Creative Commons, Mike Mozart

Earlier in 2015, Chipotle made fast-food history by announcing that the companies’ nationwide restaurants would serve only non-GMO ingredients. Prior to this announcement just seven months ago, there were exactly zero cases of E. coli reported for the popular chain. Today, Chipotle stands accused of sickening hundreds of people over several months with at least three different food-borne pathogens, yet extensive testing has been unable to determine any contaminants on ingredients or restaurant surfaces. The high number of outbreaks happening throughout different restaurants has led to a very serious question: is this a chain-wide problem of improper food-handling procedures or is Chipotle potentially being sabotaged by competitors, or worse, by food industry giants who routinely use conventional, GMO, and factory farmed ingredients in their food products?

In what appears to be a painful kick delivered while the company is down, Chipotle is now facing an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in California in conjunction with the FDA’s Criminal Investigation office. These federal inquiries are looking deeper into the August 2015 norovirus outbreak in Simi Valley, which may have made as many as 200 people ill. While typically the legal burden of these types of food safety failures fall on food producers or processors, Chipotle will be forced to fend off the feds as they attempt to recover from these food safety scares, which can be incredibly damaging to the reputation and future success of these types of chains.

The Center for Disease Control has admitted that the E. coli strain associated with the November outbreak is different from the others and a rare strain. Norovirus, which is to blame for the Simi Valley outbreak in August, is highly contagious and is as easily spread through person-to-person contact as it is through contaminated food and drink. Three months and thousands of tests, both by local and state health officials and Chipotle’s own internal company investigations, have failed to uncover the source of any of these illnesses. In similar cases like these over the past decade, the sources of such outbreaks have been uncovered with relative speed. While a highly standardized menu is partly to blame (most customers consume different combinations of the same ingredients), the Chipotle case continues to stump food safety experts.

Chipotle has since gone on the defensive; publicizing changes to its food handling procedures and apologizing to customers publicly, but investor and customer confidence is difficult to regain once lost. As of writing, Chipotle stock is down by nearly 40% since the first news of the illnesses. Of course, the mainstream media adamantly denies that Chipotle could be under attack, yet those familiar with the nefarious methods of the biotech and agrochemical industries fear that these outbreaks are far from a fluke. Sabotage or coincidence, these illnesses and the resulting press are bad news for Chipotle financially, as well as discouraging to others who hope to bring healthy and ethical food to the masses.