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Marketing misperceptions on food safety

“We’re totally willing to throw up a little,” one couple said, explaining to the Washington Post how they would never give up their every-week Chipotle habit.

There was no chance Chipotle was going to get me. They got on my “Do Not Patronize” list when I realized years ago that they were leaders of the “only our food is safe” cult.

But I still can’t be happy that Chipotle outlets look forlorn and empty. They are not selling any beef.

The real problem is that Chipotle built its business model around consumer misperceptions and false expectations. Today’s consumers, especially the millennials, have this idea that they should a) only eat “fresh,” and b) “fresh” means just jerked out of the dirt and eaten raw/uncooked. They want to avoid food that has been “processed,” has had anything added to preserve freshness, keep it from spoiling or prevent foodborne illness. And lord preserve us from anything that has been canned or frozen or hauled. “Natural” and “organic” mean “safe” and “wholesome,” right?

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There are Chipotle outlets in Canada but if you’re not familiar with them, they are all about “natural” and “organic” and their slogan, “food with integrity.” Each customer selects the burrito they want to build and accompanies it down a long counter, indicating which ingredients they wish added. There are beef, pork and chicken plus containers of greens, beans, vegetables and cheeses. At the end of the line, the burrito gets wrapped, encased in foil and one has a meal in hand.

Chipotle announced it was only going to serve certain natural whatever beef awhile back, only to backtrack because it couldn’t find enough supply. It quit serving pork for a while because one of its main suppliers wasn’t meeting its animal welfare standards and it couldn’t source the volume it needed anywhere else.

Today’s youth has not seen people die from botulism or get sick from undulant fever, die from dysentery or suffer starvation because there was no way of preserving food from harvest time until later.

So some modern companies choose to market to consumer ignorance or misperception, to a dangerous perversion of the “customer is always right” marketing theory. Sometimes the customer is ignorant about certain things and needs to be educated and informed. Just because someone thinks feeding raw, unpasteurized milk to children is a good thing doesn’t mean companies should go right out and aid and abet needless risk taking.

Lawyers today wouldn’t let you go skydiving — with or without a parachute — without signing disclaimer forms. Why should companies large or small abandon centuries of food preservation knowledge and return to high-risk food preparation, distribution and cooking methods just because their customers are amateurs when it comes to such issues? These are serious health and nutrition issues which I think companies should deal with more responsibly than just overriding their own scientific food safety knowledge and responsibility.

Chipotle’s holier-than-thou attitude hasn’t just grated on food producers and competitors. The Wall Street Journal rated Chipotle as the “all-natural evangelists” who catered to that “romantic longing for colonial-era farming.” The Journal noted that the chain’s CEO has, in effect, promised to bring his restaurants “into the 20th century,” when it comes to food preparation and sourcing (“A Chipotle Education,” 12/22/15).

Ironically, it is a noted food science expert familiar to cattlemen that Chipotle called in — Mansour Samadpour, head of IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group in Seattle — to help it revise its food-handling system. Bloomberg Business ran a scathing six-page exposé on the Chipotle debacle, “The Sustainable Locally Sourced Free-Range Humanely Raised Made-to-Order Toxic Burrito,” accompanied by a photo of a wide-eyed man in contamination suit and gas mask handling a burrito (12/28/15). Contrary to modern food prep theory, Chipotle did the dicing and chopping of raw produce in individual restaurants and bought and prepared 10 per cent of its produce locally and also prepped it in restaurants.

Chipotle has 100 suppliers for 64 ingredients but that doesn’t include its “local” suppliers. At peak season for certain ingredients, 10 per cent of ingredients may come from farms within “350 miles” of a local Chipotle. But because the three different pathogens that caused illness at Chipotle affected restaurants from coast to coast, it is more likely the contamination came from a big supplier, the Bloomberg story said. Notably, braised meat has always been cooked in central commissaries and vacuum packed. Steak and chicken still go to local restaurants raw. With all the people sick and all the investigation, Chipotle still doesn’t know the sources of its outbreaks, nor which ingredient(s).

Produce will now be tested in small batches before it is harvested. If it clears the “high-resolution, DNA-based tests,” it will then go to central commissaries for washing, sanitizing and retesting. The avocados, onions, jalapenos, lemons and limes will be blanched in boiling water for five to 10 seconds to kill microbes, Bloomberg said. Hmmm. Mom used blanching techniques decades ago.

Part of the moral, I think, for big companies, is that aiding and fostering and marketing to erroneous consumer notions does no one any favour, long term. We should be educating consumers, not pandering to their mistaken notions, whether it’s about “natural” or “organic” or GMOs. Food safety is too important.

About the author

Contributor

Steve Dittmer is the CEO of Agribusiness Freedom Foundation, a non-profit group promoting free market principles throughout the food chain. He can be reached at [email protected]

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