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What We Learned During Chipotle's First Company-Wide Food Safety Meeting

Chipotle closed all its U.S. locations today to train employees on its new food safety procedures; here's what they said.

[Photo: via Wikimedia Commons]
  • Chipotle said the investigation into last year's food contaminations has failed to find a direct cause.
  • The company announced a far-reaching new food safety program for Chipotle managers, servers, and suppliers.
  • The company announced a $10 million program to assist local food suppliers in complying with new safety guidelines.
  • Sick employees must now stay away from the workplace for five days after symptoms from an illness disappear; the time off will be paid.

In an unprecedented move, Chipotle has temporarily shuttered all of its U.S. stores today for a company-wide meeting with its employees. The fast casual trendsetter is discussing changes to both its ingredients and its food preparation methods, following a spate of reports linking Chipotle to foodborne illnesses.

Fast Company reporter Mark Sullivan is attending one of the employee meetings in a San Francisco movie theater today, and we'll be bringing you full coverage of the proceedings. The Chipotle executives leading the presentation—including co-CEOs Steve Ells and Monty Moran—are broadcasting live from a studio in Chipotle's hometown of Denver to numerous watch sites nationwide. Stay tuned here for more details.

Photo: Mark Sullivan

Chipotle today announced a new food safety program containing an array of new employee procedures, ingredient supplier requirements, and food-testing norms.

Over the past six months, the company has been subject to a slew of bad press due to outbreaks of E. coli, salmonella, and norovirus in locations across the country. Prior to its quarterly earnings report last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that Chipotle's E. coli outbreak had come to an end.

Update 12:03 p.m. ET: During the presentation, Ells (pictured above) noted that the outbreaks likely stemmed from cross-contamination from one food to another at the chain's restaurants. Tomatoes, which caused the salmonella outbreak, will now be diced at a central kitchen—rather than at individual restaurants. This, Chipotle says, will reduce the risk of the ingredients being infected by other foods. Lettuce and peppers will also be prepared at the central kitchens. Chipotle workers will continually test the ingredients for contamination.

The company is still not clear on which ingredient brought on the E. coli outbreak, though it again confirmed that the norovirus was spread through employees who came into work while sick.

"If you are feeling sick, or if you have vomited, either at work or at home, you need to tell your manager or field leader immediately," co-CEO Monty Moran told workers. Managers are also expected to report if an employee gets sick at work, and if a worker or customer vomits in a restaurant, the location must be shut down immediately.

Chipotle announced a new central reporting entity called the SSR (Safety, Security, and Risk) for food safety issues. Managers immediately report when employees or customers become sick at a Chipotle store. If an employee or customer vomits in a restaurant, that location is closed immediately.

The executives said employees who become sick are not to return to work until five days after the disappearance of the last symptom of the illness. Employees will be paid during those days, Chipotle said. Employees have until now been granted just two days of paid sick leave.

Update 12:24 p.m. ET: Chipotle is launching a $10 million Local Grower initiative to help smaller suppliers meet the updated food safety standards. A Chipotle employee said it isn't clear how the money will be dispersed.

The company also says it has no intention to curb its growth; co-CEO Steve Ells said Chipotle will continue to open new locations. "People will come back," he said, urging employees to treat Chipotle patrons with more care than usual. "Our customers should never have to wonder whether the food is safe."

As a way of luring diners back, Chipotle has posted signs in the windows of all stores reading "text in for a free burrito."

Update 12:33 p.m. ET: The presentation included a number of videos outlining, for example, how employees should clean surfaces and how they should wash their hands. Workers are expected to wash their hands for a minimum of 20 seconds, after which they should use hand sanitizer; employees have to wash their hands before serving customers or preparing food in the kitchen. Managers should ensure that this happens every hour.

Some employees groaned as video after video exhaustively explained the outbreaks and new sanitation and food safety procedures.

The presentation ended with a pump-up video for Chipotle employees. It featured numerous real Chipotle crew members bonding with coworkers, talking about their hobbies outside work, and describing what Chipotle has meant to them.

One employee said she left her family in Mexico and found a new family at Chipotle in America.

"Working at Chipotle: It’s where we become the best versions of ourselves," said one young woman.

"We are survivors," said another.

Reporting by Mark Sullivan.

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