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.