In routinely denouncing mainstream agriculture and its associated food systems, Chipotle Mexican Grill has become entangled in its own spider web of contradictions. It turns out that it is far easier for Chipotle to support the extreme virtues of the local-organic food movement and chastise "factory farming" than it is to keep E. Coli, salmonella and norovirus out of its entrees. Those outbreaks have caused illnesses in nine states. The solution to its current crisis? Recommit to time-tested food safety measures developed by the very agricultural system it has mocked through its online video series.

Since opening its first doors in 1993, Chipotle's commercial strategy has involved assigning labels such as "factory farms" to conventional agriculture practices, strongly opposing genetically modified organisms or GMOs, and, at the same time, propping up locally purchased ingredients as the best way to ensure sustainable food production. It's that locavore culture that has proved troublesome to the restaurant chain that now boasts nearly 2,000 locations.

Practicing what they preach, some Chipotle restaurants have been purchasing food from local vendors. While that strategy has worked for many local mom-and-pop and gourmet restaurants, the fragile and inconsistent supply system often crumbles when part of a complex ingredient supply network. The result is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention comes knocking following a foodborne disease outbreak. With no way to track down the offending tomato or lettuce, the CDC digs deeper, demanding protocols to trace food within the entire supply chain. That puts Chipotle right back into the food system it has sneered at for the past two decades.

Chipotle has learned that E. coli, salmonella and norovirus are equal opportunity employers. In trying to shore up its base with an open letter to customers in some 60 newspapers across the U.S., the company's CEO has promised to process food and seal containers in a central kitchen. Before it is shipped to restaurants, the produce will be tested for microbes . . . all steps already done by conventional food processors and restaurants.

While it's likely Chipotle will continue to demonize modern agriculture to win over customers, it will need to step more carefully as it realigns its marketing message. While some people want to pay a premium for locally sourced food, they value food safety even more. It's the latter that Chipotle will have to convince customers it's capable of providing on a regular basis.

This editorial appears on page 52 of the January 25, 2016 issue of Hoard's Dairyman.

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