Chipotle Mexican Grill rides out another food-related illness scare

Chipotle faces another food safety issue

National Avocado Day did not go as planned this week at Chipotle Mexican Grill. As the fast-casual restaurant chain promoted free guacamole with any entree on Tuesday, health officials began investigating hundreds of illness claims by people who ate at one of the chain's restaurants in Powell, Ohio.

County health officials said they have received 683 inquiries related to a possible foodborne illness outbreak among patrons of the reopened restaurant. Staff has interviewed 480 people, and food and samples from people have been sent to a state laboratory for testing. Initial samples tested negative for salmonella, shigella, e.coli and norovirus, stated the Delaware General Health District, in Delaware, Ohio.

While it's too soon to say exactly what sickened so many people, Chipotle's history raises the question as to whether the latest incident is an isolated one, or part of an ongoing food safety issue at the company.

"Chipotle is a special case, because they were the source of so many cases in such a short amount of time," Ben Chapman, an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University, told CBS MoneyWatch. 

"They are under a microscope, and any blip that arises is important for the business on a scale different than others," Chapman added, noting, for perspective, that there are an estimated 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses in the United States each year.

Chipotle had been making a comeback under a new CEO after a slew of high-profile safety scares battered the burrito chain's brand and stock price in 2015 and 2016, and word this week that it had temporarily closed a restaurant after reports of patrons taking ill had investors dumping its shares on Tuesday

"In most situations this would be a horrifying kiss of death, but with Chipotle it is baked into the brand's story," said Eric Schiffer, CEO at Reputation Management Consultants. "The core demographic of Chipotle's base that skews younger is not intimidated by these instances, they either aren't aware, or don't think it will happen to them." 

State investigators seem to be treating the outbreak as "a single restaurant issue," Chapman said. "We're probably looking at food handling behaviors in that one restaurant," he said, listing unwashed hands, employees coming to work ill, or food stored or cooked at the wrong temperature as likely culprits.

Chipotle confirmed that the restaurant in question reopened Tuesday after being shuttered the prior day. The company offers three days of paid sick leave each year to all of its employees, a spokesperson said.

Chipotle stores to close temporarily Feb. 8 for food safety

"The fact that they have 300-ish people that are sick does make it look like something more systemic in that restaurant," offered Bill Marler, a personal injury and product liability attorney who represented consumers in three separate cases in the past against the company.

Last summer, Chipotle retrained kitchen workers on food safety after identifying a sick employee as causing a norovirus outbreak that prompted one of its restaurants in Virginia to briefly close.

With nothing confirmed, the latest scenario involving Chipotle sounds to Marler like the norovirus, which he describes as both difficult to control, as well as in figuring how the spread begins. "It's often unclear if it's contaminated food, employees or customers," said the lawyer, noting the virus is common on cruise ships and schools, and afflicts some 30 million Americans each year.

In dealing with the negative news from Powell, Ohio, Chipotle drew some empathetic words from Marler, an unlikely source given his past adversarial role in challenging the company in court. "This is a bit of an aberration for them, because they've had a pretty good record over the last couple of years," said the lawyer. After Chipotle's public-health troubles in 2015 and 2016, the company "brought in a number of top food safety people" to address its issues, he added.

Wall Street analysts also signaled a willingness to give Chipotle's new leader a pass, albeit a qualified one. Calling it "Brian Niccol's first test as CEO," Cowen analysts Andrew Charles and Brian Vieten noted that Chipotle's prior management would issue coupons after food safety scares to protect traffic in a tactic that they said did not work. 

"We would like to see CEO Brian Niccol take a more accountable and responsible approach and grab the bull by the horns to clarify what happened, what was remedied, and what changes going forward to limit the risk an event like this will occur again," the analysts wrote Wednesday in a client note.

"You want to fix the core problem," offered Schiffer. "This is a festering wound to brand trust."