Chipotle scandal echoes larger health issues within food industry

News of a recent lawsuit accusing Chipotle of attempting to cover up a foodborne illness outbreak has left me feeling skeptical. The new-kid Mexican chain has been one-upping established fast-food royalty for a while, making every effort to make its food fast and fresh. After the announcement that genetically modified ingredients were officially off the menu in April 2015, Chipotle had a bit of a target on its back. Whether or not there was any sabotage on the part of fast-food industry backers or fans of the biotech industry—as several independent websites and environmental activists have claimed—the outbreaks present an important opportunity to make American fast food both safer and more sustainable.

According to Food Safety News, roughly 500 individuals were sickened by the food they ate at Chipotle from July–December 2015. Multiple strains of E. coli and norovirus were responsible for the six different outbreaks that occurred across numerous states in that six-month period. Those who favor the sabotage explanation have emphasized that some of the E. coli bacteria are of a “rare genetic strain,” insinuating that they may have originated from a lab.

The outbreak contributed to legal troubles, plummeting stocks and a veritable publicity nightmare for the chain. Additionally, Chipotle pledged to close the doors of every store for several hours on Feb. 8 to educate employees on proper safety techniques.

In reality, the 500 individuals who reported getting sick from Chipotle in 2015 represent an unfortunate but tiny fraction of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s estimated 48 million Americans who contract foodborne illnesses each year. The problem lies not with non-GMO, organic or locally grown food, but with the growth-hungry fast-food model. This model favors reckless expansion over careful curation of ingredients.

Virtually every industrialized livestock operation is a haven for bacteria. It makes sense: cram a plethora of cows into very tight quarters instead of letting them roam free, feed them grain instead of grass and the result is E. coli. These sick, suffering animals are then fed enormous amounts of antibiotics to keep them “healthy” and growth hormones to fatten them up as much as possible in their shortened lifespans.

Similarly, mass-produced genetically modified crops are sprayed with various pesticides to keep away insects and diseases while forming a layer of industrial chemicals unfit for consumption on most non-organic produce. The existence of these numerous biochemical solutions explains why—from time to time—consumers’ risk of getting a given disease from industrially farmed food may be lower. That does not mean this food is actually healthier, however.

            Fast-food can result in the spread of more foodborne illness because of the speed of preparation required in the restaurant itself. Pressure to serve as many customers in as little time as possible can result in fewer changed gloves or washed knives, leading to the cross-contamination of meat and produce.

Chipotle announced that it would shift to preparing and packing more food in central kitchens—just like its fast food competitors. This represents a giving-in to pressure—and to the irrational idea that, somehow, freshly prepared, largely chemical-free produce could be worse for customers’ health than washed out, assembly-line-style lettuce and tomatoes. This is an unfortunate step backward for the chain and I hope this trend does not continue.

Hopefully, the Chipotle scandal does not discourage other restaurants from moving toward providing fresher, less environmentally destructive food in the future. If their methods for fostering the development of more small-scale, slowed-down, ethical farms force them to also be somewhat smaller and slower than what Americans are used to, then so be it.