Chipotle Finally Cleans Up the Kitchen

But I'm hungry ...

Photographer: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Chipotle skipped lunch Monday so its 50,000 employees in the U.S. could watch a food-safety presentation. The company, which makes much of its commitment to fresh ingredients, has been humiliated by a recent food-poisoning outbreak that led to collapses in both its sales and shares.

Food Safety

This raises the question of whether the hygienic reforms the company is putting in place -- including preparing many products at centralized commissaries rather than in each store's kitchen, and blanching onions and other vegetables in hot water -- will undermine Chipotle's motto of providing "food with integrity."

It shouldn't: Keeping customers safe from foodborne illness should be high on the integrity checklist. In fact, the sorts of reforms Chipotle is making should be considered not just by rival restaurants, but also by school lunch programs -- and, indeed, by anyone whipping up locally sourced, grass-fed, farm-fresh, free-range, sustainable feasts in his or her own kitchen.

One of the most encouraging trends in American eating habits in recent years has been the emphasis on "farm-to-table" cooking. But it has drawbacks: Fresh, locally sourced food is too expensive for most Americans. Eating only what is nearby and in season can limit a diet in unhealthful ways. And many of these products carry a unique set of risks of foodborne illness. Pathogens such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria can thrive in raw vegetables, as evinced by recalls in recent years of cantaloupes, cucumbers, lettuces and sprouts.

Many of these dangers have been addressed by the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture -- and by Congress. The official approach focuses on large-scale commercial agriculture and relies too heavily on self-regulation, but its underlying assumption is correct: "Processed" food is not de facto unhealthy. Foodies may groan about the heavy pasteurization of dairy products, pressure-cooking of canned goods, and irradiation of vegetables, but all those steps are safe and proven to help eliminate bacteria and parasites.

It's hard not to feel a little schadenfreude at Chipotle's comeuppance, given its morally superior marketing and its fashionable but wrongheaded ban on genetically modified foods. It also squandered goodwill with a lackluster response to locating the sources of the recent outbreaks, which has led to a federal criminal investigation.

But in rethinking the way it prepares food, even at a potential cost to its image, the company deserves some credit. (So, too, for announcing it will spend millions to help its suppliers maintain safety standards.) These are lessons in food safety neither Chipotle's competitors nor its customers can ignore.

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