These outbreaks are likely to continue until Chipotle implements a robust enterprise risk management program. Let’s understand why:
CEO Steven Ells has commented multiple times on the recurring outbreaks with determination to make Chipotle “the safest restaurant to eat at.” So why can’t the restaurant get back on its feet?
I believe Chipotle has not realized this is a systemic risk management issue, as opposed to a smattering of one-off incidents to be addressed separately as if they have no commonality. This a classic whack-a-mole problem: each time a risk issue is “whacked, it only pops up again somewhere else.
To be sure, there has never been more than one outbreak at any one location. This is because, as soon as an outbreak occurs, the organization becomes hyper-focused on the incident.
For instance, after an outbreak in Sterling, VA in 2017, Ells cited a sick employee as the cause and announced the location’s employees would undergo “relentless training” on the company’s policies. Hyper-attention on one incident such as this is the wrong approach, as it only provides a band-aid solution, evidenced by the fact that hundreds of people are still falling ill.
The root cause of Chipotle’s outbreaks is not fallible sick policies or undercooked food, it’s ineffective risk management.
The 2015 Chipotle outbreaks occurred shortly after the restaurant launched an innovation to include locally sourced food in their recipes. A civil lawsuit filed in January 2016 alleged that the chain’s food-borne illness outbreaks were at least partially caused by the company’s decision to shift the process of prepping produce from central commissary kitchens to individual locations, which added about 1,000 points of food sourcing and contamination.
Innovation is great, but when risk assessments and mitigations are left out of the process, oversights and scandals are bound to occur. When new processes are created, or new policies are instituted, there needs to be a system in place to uncover the risks of new implementations and back-up plans for if these new processes fall short of excellence.