When Fresh Falls Short

Chipotle is recovering from a food-safety crisis that is all too familiar for other brands.
Chipotle is recovering from a food-safety crisis that is all too familiar for other brands.
istockphoto

It’s been a busy few months for Sloan’s Ice Cream. The West Palm Beach, Florida–based brand is planning to ramp up growth, which means it needs a larger manufacturing facility to support increased volume.

But bringing this new building online is a more delicate process than simply shipping equipment and ingredients. In fact, David Wild, director of franchising for the eight-unit brand, emphasizes that it is taking great care to ensure that the new facility is clean and up to the best food-safety standards. After all, it’s not hard to bring to mind cautionary tales from the least year alone.

In November, 42 Chipotle locations in the Pacific Northwest were temporarily closed following an outbreak of E. coli. The incident came on the heels of smaller Chipotle-based outbreaks in California and Minnesota. And before the fast-casual leader could regain its footing, another crisis struck—this one across the country, in Boston. Nearly 100 customers fell sick with norovirus, leading founder and CEO Steve Ells to make a very uncomfortable appearance on the “Today Show,” where he expressed sympathy for those who had fallen ill and then attempted to explain how Chipotle would change its policies to prevent further repeats.

Even worse, consumer-packaged good (CPG) ice cream company Blue Bell sold listeria-tainted product, resulting in 10 illnesses and three deaths.

“Food safety is one of the only things that can bring a big company to its knees very quickly,” Wild says. “If you have an E. coli breakout and your name is associated with that, it can crush you.”

While no company wishes to face a food-safety crisis, such circumstances do offer operators a reminder that it pays to be proactive with food safety, and that no safety issue is too small for a quick and comprehensive response.

Take, for example, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. Like Blue Bell, the Columbus, Ohio–based ice cream shop and CPG brand faced a listeria scare in 2015. But in sharp contrast to Blue Bell, which was reportedly aware of a contamination risk and now faces criminal charges, Jeni’s acted swiftly and openly—twice.

Shortly after a contaminated pint was discovered in Nebraska, Jeni’s recalled all of its products, closed its production facility, and instructed customers to either return or dispose of their products. It also brought in a team of 10 scientists to inspect the ice cream and the facilities. Beyond that, the company created a page on its website with updates on the situation and brought in top employees from the shops and kitchen to man a 24-hour crisis communication center.

“When the crisis hit, it was easy for us to decide; we’ve got to tell people what we know when we know it,” says CEO John Lowe. “We huddled up our leadership team and quickly rattled through the things we needed to do.”

He says the company also benefited from the example set by Amy’s Kitchen; just a month before Jeni’s temporary shutdown, the organic frozen-food company had to do the same after it received listeria-contaminated spinach.

But Jeni’s nimble reaction should also be credited to Lowe, who had started his career as a lawyer before becoming an executive at General Electric, where he received “some amazing crisis management training.”

It might seem that foodservice operators and CPG companies should just resign themselves to an eventual food-safety issue in light of recent events, but experts say not so fast: Most contaminations can be prevented, and in the case those measures fail, quick action, as in the case of Jeni’s, can keep tainted products off the market.

Shaking up the supply chain

As consumer preference for produce-filled, fresh meals grows, so too, do certain risks.

“It’s true that when produce is consumed raw, there’s no kill step prior to consumption,” says Francine Shaw, president of Food Safety Training Solutions, which works with businesses ranging from restaurants and hotels to schools and medical facilities. “Management of food-borne pathogens is still possible. If it weren’t, they wouldn’t be using fresh produce; nobody would.”

Consumers might perceive foods that are labeled “organic” or “local” as being less risky, but Shaw says it is simply not the case. For contaminants like E. coli and salmonella, it doesn’t matter whether the foods are organic or even local since all produce is grown “in, on, or near the dirt,” she says.

While such labels do not improve food safety, the demand for specialty foods has shaken up the supply chain. Wade Winters, vice president of supply chain at purchasing partner Consolidated Concepts, previously worked at fast casual Au Bon Pain. He says consumers’—particularly Millennials’— expectations are so different than years past that it has thrown a curveball at the restaurants and suppliers trying to satisfy them.

“It tends to disrupt some of the processes that were in place and how things have been done in the supply chain for so many years,” Winters says. Add to that an ever-growing number of restaurants and consumers eating out more frequently, and the challenge grows. “Everything has been amplified. The steps [for food safety] have always been there; it’s just now they’re longer and more abundant.”

Like Shaw, Winters says extra sanitation procedures and checks along the supply chain and in the restaurant could mitigate the chances of contamination or spoilage. For example, pre-washed produce should still be washed and delivery trucks and coolers should be calibrated to the right temperature. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the restaurant to ensure that the food it is serving is safe. Both Shaw and Winters recommend that operators do their homework to verify the procedures of their third-party partners. By making regular visits to manufacturing facilities, confirming certifications such as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP), and asking honest questions about a partner’s history and plan for hypothetical scenarios, restaurants can curtail certain risks.

Without being cooked or frozen before serving, fresh vegetables and fruits—especially items like salad greens—are more likely to be contaminated. Winters says sprouts went through a popular phase, but because of their elevated risk, they are virtually nonexistent on menus today. But operators aren’t about to remove a whole meal category like salads, he says.

The proactive approach

Although Jeni’s listeria episode was not related to produce, Lowe says, the lesson from its experience shouldn’t be an attempt to put the genie back in the bottle.

“I certainly don’t want the takeaway for anybody in America to be that we should move away from our path of eating less processed food and eating more and more fresh vegetables,” Lowe says.

And while it might seem that listeria is a dairy-specific contaminant given Jeni’s and Blue Bell’s back-to-back experiences, the bacteria is more often found in raw foods. Produce that has been exposed to tainted soil or water and uncooked meat or unpasteurized milk can carry listeria. The bacteria can also continue to thrive in cold temperatures.

Jeni’s listeria scare began last April when the Nebraska Department of Agriculture pulled samples from a Whole Foods in Lincoln. Very quickly, the Jeni’s team and its expert advisers found listeria in the pint that began it all (a Dark Chocolate), as well as in a pint of the Buckeye State flavor; the contaminant was ultimately traced back to a single spout in its production kitchen.

While Jeni’s destroyed all of its ice cream—some 535,000 pounds—its supply partners, including Askinosie Chocolate and Smith Dairy, checked their own facilities and products. No listeria was detected, but on the company’s update page, Lowe commended Jeni’s suppliers for “jumping in” and helping when the crisis struck.

In May, the company reopened its production kitchen and its retail shops after investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in upgrading the kitchen, such as removing walls, adding cooler space, and putting sanitary crystals around drain pipes. The company also moved the processing of raw fruits and vegetables to a different facility to lower the risk of contamination.

Despite these physical changes and new procedures, Jeni’s had another brush with listeria just a month after resuming production. “We found listeria had reappeared on the floor at the facility. And it’s then that we made the much more questionable decision to shut down again,” Lowe says. “We could have just cleaned it and gotten back to making ice cream, but that did not feel right, given that we had just spent a fair amount of time and brainpower making sure listeria was gone. We were worried we hadn’t solved it.”

Another shutdown and investigation revealed that the reappearance was likely due to a water-cooling tower that had been plumbed to drain back into the facility in a trench drain. Because Jeni’s had been testing each batch of ice cream since it reopened in May, consumers were not at risk. Nevertheless, Lowe says, the distinction was lost in the media coverage, which called it another outbreak.

This second, self-contained appearance of listeria only halted production and closed the shops (which had no supply due to the shutdown) for a little over a week. Since then, Jeni’s has been in the clear.

Changing the food safety rules

Throughout these episodes and others like it, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been in the background, quietly sending in its own team of investigators and ready to dole out fines or cease-and-desist orders where applicable.

“The FDA is in a weird spot as it relates to manufacturers. They don’t believe they’re entitled to try to help; they try not to tell you what to do. And so it’s really on the company to work with their own experts to figure out what the right thing to do is,” Lowe says. “The FDA is sort of in the backseat with the ability to have a very Draconian we-can-shut-you-down response, although that’s very rarely used and is not a threat, except when people don’t respond appropriately to the crisis.”

Indeed, experts say that often the FDA sets the baseline for food-safety rules, but many companies—especially the larger ones—go above and beyond regulation with their food-safety policies. Consolidated Concepts’ Winters says it’s always a good sign when a prospective supply partner works with big brands like McDonald’s or Burger King, because those companies have standards that are often far more stringent than the FDA’s.

New legislation could raise the bare minimum requirements. In January 2011, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which, according to the FDA, encompasses the “most sweeping reform of our food safety laws in more than 70 years.” According to the FDA, the new act is being implemented in phases with some compliance dates based on business size. The effects of FSMA do not directly impact foodservice operators and restaurants, but rather the suppliers with whom they work.

Winters thinks it’s a step in the right direction because it gives the FDA more power and leverage to have an impact on the whole supply chain. Food-safety standards vary significantly across state lines, but FSMA gives the FDA more of an overarching reach. Others, like Food Safety Training’s Shaw, are more skeptical.

“It has taken so long for anything to even happen with the Food Safety Modernization Act, and at this point, not a whole lot has happened with it. There’s a lot of talk, but there hasn’t been much action,” she says. “Something needs to happen somewhere that those rules are standardized, because safe food is safe food, regardless of what state you’re in. … It’s no wonder that operators get confused and that there are missteps sometimes, because there’s no standardization.”

David Crownover is the product manager of the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) ServSafe, which helps restaurants stay up to date on food-safety standards through training, examination, and certification. ServSafe’s program is structured around the FDA code, and Crownover says the code hasn’t made drastic changes (such as cooking temperatures or holding times) in the last six years or so. Nevertheless, he thinks FSMA will have some impact on foodservice, especially for categories like ice cream, where the brand does its own manufacturing.

“From an actual, specific impact on the food industry as a whole, it’s really going to hit the processors, the packaged goods side, and the distributors. It would only hit a restaurant or foodservice company if they happen to be making a private-label packaged good themselves,” Crownover says.

FSMA does not directly affect foodservice operators unless they import food products or hold food in warehouses and distribution centers. Since further legislation is unlikely to impact restaurants in a more meaningful way, the responsibility rests largely on the operators themselves and regulations in the states where they operate.

Crownover says that beginning with California in 2011, other states (including Texas, Florida, and Illinois) have implemented tougher standards. Instead of only training special food-safety managers, these states put all employees who handle food in any capacity through an abridged program.

Safely scaling up

For states where the food-safety standards are more relaxed, smaller emerging concepts might lose focus on such processes, especially when they’re hoping to grow. It’s not the case for Sloan’s, but Wild can understand how food safety gets lost in the mix for some restaurants.

“When you’re a really small company, maybe it doesn’t seem as important. You’re more focused on making sure your food is good and customers keep coming. You’ve got to keep the doors open; you’ve got to maintain a profit. Sometimes cleanliness takes a backseat,” he says. He recommends that brands work with outside consultants to put the necessary systems in place, especially for those that plan to franchise.

Wild adds that one of the benefits for Sloan’s (and ice cream brands in general) is the inherent control that comes with creating the product itself.

“It forces us to follow these procedures,” he says. “[When] we put all these new things in place for manufacturing, it’s very easy for us to then take what we’ve developed and go to our retail stores.”

For years, Chipotle was heralded by other brands for its game-changing commitment to fresh ingredients and better animal husbandry. Even when the initial reports of food-borne illness broke, many companies and industry experts stood behind the brand, but repeated issues raised some doubts about its systems. Today, as the industry continues to watch Chipotle’s efforts to sort through what went wrong, many are recognizing food-safety concerns as a universal issue that will have to be faced as a community. Many are also sympathetic to the plight of their competitors, perhaps recognizing how precarious safety can be amid an evolving supply chain.

Lowe paints a picture wherein the not-so-distant future, brands are working together toward fresher and safer food. In fact, he hopes that Jeni’s experiences might help other restaurants in the future should a similar situation befall them. As pre-emptive advice, he urges companies to be transparent about what they know and when they know it.

The tide is shifting in foodservice with a greater emphasis on craftsmanship and high-quality ingredients. For Lowe, the best way to keep consumers safe and brands free of food-borne diseases is to work together.

“In the craft-food movement, you have to be able to ensure safety and with the right brains around you, the right experts, you can do so,” he says. “And if anything, the craft-food movement is just waking up to the need for more focus on that.” .


While there are a number of food-borne pathogens, these four have been making the headlines in recent years. As with most illnesses, certain sectors of the population are more at risk than others, like young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with immune deficiencies.

According to the FDA regulations, foods that fall under the labeling mandate include:

E. Coli

Bacteria found in human and animal intestines; most varieties promote health.

• Sources of harmful E. Coli include undercooked ground beef, unpasteurized milk and juice, and raw fruits and vegetables.

• Prevent illness by avoiding high-risk foods and using a meat thermometer to ensure beef cooks at 160 F.

Listeria

Bacteria found in soil, water, and some animals, like poultry and cattle.

• Sources include deli meats and hot dogs, unpasteurized dairy products, and raw sprouts.

• Can grow in colder temperatures, including the refrigerator.

Prevent illness by cooking and pasteurizing at-risk foods.

Norovirus

Unlike E. coli and listeria, norovirus is a virus and therefore has no specific source.

• It is highly contagious and the most common cause of stomach infections.

• Prevent illness by exercising proper sanitation, like washing hands and disinfecting counter surfaces. Washing fruits and vegetables and thoroughly cooking shellfish can help.

Salmonella

A group of bacteria that is one of the most common causes of food poisoning.

• Sources included contaminated eggs, poultry, meat, unpasteurized milk and juice, and raw produce, nuts, and spices. It can also be transmitted by animals like baby chicks, amphibians, and pet foods.

• Prevent illness by avoiding high-risk foods, keeping foods refrigerated before cooking and after serving, and separating ready-to-eat foods from cooked foods.