Restaurant business Chipotle Mexican Grill has taken “aggressive actions” throughout its supply chain after an outbreak of E. coli cases was linked to several of its US outlets.
The exact source of the illnesses had not been identified, but Chipotle has employed IEH Laboratories to work with its supply chain and operations departments to make its food safety programme more robust.
Chipotle said that after a “farm to fork” assessment of its ingredients, the new regime would include partnership with suppliers to implement “high resolution” testing of all fresh produce. This involves DNA-based tests frequently performed on small batches of ingredients before they are shipped to restaurants.
The company said it would pursue continuous improvements throughout its supply chain “using data from test results to enhance the ability to measure the performance of its vendors and suppliers”.
At the end of October, 11 Chipotle locations including Washington and Oregon were linked to E. coli cases in those states. The company has said that thousands of food sample tests from Chipotle restaurants linked to the incident have shown no E. coli, and that no ingredients likely to have been connected with the outbreak remain in the restaurants or supply chain.
Following the review, there will now be weekly food safety audits by field operations leaders, quarterly food safety audits by the safety, security and risk team, and external assessments by IEH Laboratories.
Chipotle will also start end-of-shelf-life testing to make sure ingredients retain their quality throughout their shelf life. Restaurant staff will also receive enhanced training.
The company said it had determined the optimal food safety practice for each ingredient. For example, tomatoes would be washed, diced, washed again and tested in a centralised preparation kitchen before packaging and shipping to restaurants.
The business, which sells burritos, tacos and salads, aims to use fresh, organic and sustainably grown non-GMO ingredients and responsibly raised meat, without the use of subtherapeutic antibiotics or added hormones.
Chipotle chairman and co-chief executive Steve Ells, said: “When I opened the first Chipotle 22 years ago, I offered a focused menu of just a few things made with fresh ingredients and prepared using classic cooking techniques. We do the same thing today, even with nearly 2,000 restaurants, and we are working harder than ever to ensure that our food is safe and delicious.”
IEH Laboratories chief executive Mansour Samadpour stressed that Chipotle’s practices were already within industry norms, but said the new measures would take it even further.
“While it is never possible to completely eliminate all risk, this program eliminates or mitigates risk to a level near zero, and will establish Chipotle as the industry leader in this area,” said Samadpour.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are about 48 million cases of food-related illness in the US ever year, including 265,000 cases of E. coli.