How are local Chipotles handling food safety?

Posted at 10:31 PM, Feb 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-05 23:31:09-05

A national scare - two E. coli outbreaks affecting states coast to coast.  All linked to the popular Chipotle restaurant chain.  No one got sick in our state, but we wanted to see how the franchises in southeast Wisconsin are doing when it comes to food safety.

Foodborne illness is a common problem in the U.S.  One in six Americans get sick every year.  One risk factor is improper food temperatures - a problem we found in some of the inspection reports for area Chipotle restaurants.

There were two separate E. coli outbreaks across 14 states.  More than 50 people were infected - all of it linked to Chipotle restaurants. Monday the CDC declared the outbreak over, but the bigger picture in all this is how common foodborne illness is in the U.S.   48 million people get sick each year, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from these illnesses.

Carly Hegarty is an Environmental Health Coordinator with the City of Milwaukee.  When she and other inspectors go into a restaurant they're looking for specific risk factors. "We are going in and looking to control anything that would cause a food borne illness.  If you're not cooking chicken properly, you're not cooking hamburger meat properly and it's contaminated you're going to make people sick."

Improper food temperatures is a problem inspectors see all the time, and it's a violation we found on almost all the inspection reports, dating back one year, at local Chipotle franchises.

There were three spots with no temperature problems on their last inspections.  The Chipotle in Racine, on Bluemound in Brookfield, and Mayfair Road in Wauwatosa. 

Hegarty pointed out, "I think it's really good for consumers to be educated in what food safety is."  What kinds of food are most likely to make you sick?  The CDC says between 1998 and 2008 produce was responsible for 46% of foodborne illnesses.  The most deaths were associated with poultry.

The source of the E. coli outbreak linked to Chipotle is still a mystery. In December CEO Steve Ells went on the Today Show and apologized to customers. "I'm sorry for the people who got sick.  They're having a tough time, and I feel terrible about that.  We're doing a lot to rectify this and to make sure this will never happen again." 

But the trouble continues for the burrito chain with the announcement of a federal criminal probe.  The expanded investigation is linked to a food safety incident at a California Chipotle.  According to Reuters it could focus on what managers at headquarters knew about conditions at restaurants around the country and when.

Every Chipotle in the U.S.. will be closed for lunch Monday for an employee meeting.  They'll be discussing food safety changes and talking about future steps the company is taking.  Chipotle will re open at 3pm.