Understanding the Romaine-Based E. Coli Outbreak of 2018

Beginning in April, 197 people across 35 states contracted E. coli believed to have originated in Yuma, Arizona. Most of the victims reported eating bagged, pre-cut romaine lettuce, although some were merely in close contact with those who became sick from consuming it. Of the 197 victims, 89 required hospitalization. To date, individuals in California, New York, Arkansas and Minnesota have passed away.

In a May 31 blog post by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), authors Scott Gottlieb, M.D., and Stephen Ostroff, M.D. noted, “This is a serious and tragic outbreak. And we’re devoting considerable effort to identifying the primary source. We’ve made progress in recent weeks toward this goal. This outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses is the largest in the United States in more than 10 years.”

That outbreak, which occurred during the summer of 2006, impacted 199 people across 26 states and Canada and included three fatalities. The 2006 incident was ultimately linked to a baby spinach field in California, which had been contaminated by a mix of river water and cattle and feral pig feces. At present, the exact source of the current contamination is still unknown.

In a statement released by the FDA on June 1, they noted, “The traceback investigation indicates that the illnesses associated with this outbreak cannot be explained by a single grower, harvester, processor, or distributor. While traceback continues, the FDA will focus on trying to identify factors that contributed to contamination of romaine across multiple supply chains.”

Across the country, retail food chains and grocery stores responded quickly to the threat. Costco, Walmart and Kroger grocery stores pulled existing lettuce products off their shelves in response to warnings from federal investigators. On April 21, the popular fast casual chain Just Salad took to Twitter to respond to concerns. With nearly 30 locations in the New York and New Jersey area, plus outposts in Philadelphia and Chicago, they reassured customers with the following: “Just Salad suppliers are NOT affected by the possible E.coli outbreak. Our Romaine in all markets is grown in CA, where there have not been any reports of contaminated lettuce. We will be adding Iceberg to the menu for those that would like another lettuce option.”

Selling contaminated food can have significant financial impacts for retailers and restaurants. A Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study published in April 2018 estimated the potential damages to a fast food restaurant due to an outbreak. According to the researchers, a single foodborne illness incident costs between $4,000 and $1.9 million for cases involving fines, lost revenue and legal fees.

In late May, the Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which is administered by the Arizona Department of Agriculture, confirmed romaine lettuce was no longer being produced nor distributed from the Yuma growing region. The last known harvest occurred on April 16, 2018, and – due to the product’s 21-day shelf life – it's presumed the infected romaine lettuce is no longer available in stores or restaurants.

While the contaminated product is likely out of supply, it remains to be seen whether or not consumer trust in romaine lettuce has been impacted. However, kudos go to the grocers and restaurants who reacted quickly, because it demonstrated effective food safety systems in practice and reinforced consumer trust in their brands.

Whitepaper: Hurricane Chipotle

Whitepaper Summary

  • Chipotle contributed to a food revolution, garnering consumer trust and support through its “food with integrity” campaign.
  • Like the swirling bands of a hurricane, a series of negative events shaped Chipotle’s food safety crisis.
  • Image Repair Theory (IRT), the most advanced reputation communication typology available, shows how Chipotle used only two of 15 available Image Repair techniques.
  • Because the range of responses is fixed, IRT provides food safety communicators a real advantage in responding to food-related crises.

Chipotle’s Response to E. Coli Woes

Chipotle has been rocked this year, and the past few years it seems, by foodborne illness. In their third and most significant issue of 2015, they temporarily shuttered 43 locations in the Pacific Northwest due to an E. coli outbreak.

Just as those restaurants were reopening, the CDC reported the E. coli issue had spread to five new states (California, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Minnesota).

Then, to escalate matters, the CDC also identified norovirus had sickened 140 college students at a Chipotle restaurant in Boston, leading to the closure of that location.

Not a fun time for Chipotle, but the brand has responded in an incredibly proactive, transparent manner. They’ve gone so far as to declare they will be THE global leader in food safety.

“We have this desire to be the safest place to eat,” said Steve Ells, Chipotle chairman, founder and co-CEO. “We’re serving extraordinary quality ingredients, and that’s been something in place for many, many years now, and we’re best in the world at that. We’re going to be the best in the world at food safety, and we’re taking this very, very seriously.”

Based on the research we conducted earlier this year, we know consumers look for a proactive response along with third-party validation after a food safety issue:

Food Infographic

We can use Hearit’s model of apologia to diagnose Chipotle’s response. The model tells us a company can select one of three responses when facing a reputation issue.

  • Option 1: Redefinition – this strategy of redefinition relies heavily on the use of dissociation; it’s the technique to use when allegations are justifiably deniable.
  • Option 2: Scapegoating – this strategy works by transferring guilt from an organization to an individual or isolated group; this technique requires the company to acknowledge wrongdoing, but then shift blame onto ‘rogue’ individuals or groups of employees.
  • Option 3: Corrective Action – this strategy seeks to convince the public the organization is responding to and has learned from its wrongdoing – and furthermore – has instituted controls to ensure the transgression won’t happen again.

Chipotle is clearly exercising the corrective action option – they are countering the magnitude of this issue with an equally sized response – full-page ads in newspapers across the country, for instance. Their messaging conveys genuine remorse for what happened and demonstrates their commitment to prevention of another foodborne illness outbreak.

Food Safety Plan

The open letter from founder Steve Ells hit on all the messages consumers want to hear. He expresses his apologies for what has taken place and calls it “completely unacceptable.” He talks about collaborating “with preeminent food safety experts” to validate their processes – something we know from our research consumers expect – and their unprecedented testing process. Near the end of the letter, he makes a big promise: “we are confident that we can achieve near zero risk.”

Well done, Chipotle. Now they just have to make it true and keep it true. They can’t afford another crisis. If one food thing came from this, it’s that Chipotle has in many ways revolutionized the restaurant industry, and their ingredient transparency has helped reshape consumer expectations.

Can Your Organization’s Food Crisis Send You to Jail?

Consumers are paying more attention to their food than ever. This focus goes beyond just the ingredients and nutritional data – consumers are looking more and more at how and where their food is made. Going beyond the food they eat, consumers are putting the companies under the microscope to see if they are acting as good corporate stewards.

That increased attention means consumers are holding brands more responsible for their actions than ever before. Food safety issues are magnified by increased media attention and the ability of social media to perpetuate the news cycle, making the job of a communications team in the food space more difficult.

All of these factors combine into an interesting trend: criminal charges in food safety issues. A recent Time article points to four convictions in foodborne illness outbreaks over the last couple years.

Take the case of Stewart Parnell, former CEO of Peanut Corporation of America (PCA). PCA was identified in 2009 as the source of a massive salmonella outbreak that made hundreds sick and caused at least nine deaths. Prosecutors argued Parnell knew about the tainted product and famously told a plant manager to “Just ship it.” And, according to evidence, Parnell and his team fabricated certificates of analysis that state the food at issue was free of pathogens, when there had been no testing done or the tests had in fact revealed the presence of pathogens.

Parnell was convicted of 76 federal counts, including knowingly shipping tainted food across state lines, obstruction of justice, conspiracy and wire fraud. He will serve 28 years in prison.

There have been other recent cases of criminal charges for food safety issues. In Colorado, 33 people died from listeria after an outbreak found in cantaloupe originating from Jensen Farms. The owners, brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen, each received five years of probation and $150,000 in fines.

Food safety attorney Shawn Stevens says, “the FDA is just beginning to dip its toes in the water as it relates to how much and how often it will in fact use criminal sanctions…[the FDA] will pick some of the more high profile cases, bring criminal charges, and then use the media attention as a tool to show the public and corporate America that the agency is really serious about food safety.”

This trend adds another layer of anxiety for food producers, but also serves as a reminder of the communication opportunities we have. Food brands should regularly talk about the steps they take to maintain a safe product, whether that’s in social media or inviting a reporter to tour a manufacturing facility. Consumers are looking for transparency, as seen by McDonald’s “Our Food. Your Questions” video series, giving viewers an up-close look at their manufacturing practices. And, by saying it publicly, the company will have to uphold their commitment to food safety. As the saying goes, we will speak it into existence.