Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE: CMG) CEO Brian Niccol outlined a number of the company’s new health initiatives during an investors’ conference held earlier this week. The new steps are being taken after a slew of high-profile safety scares battered Chipotle’s brand over the past several years. Niccol said, “We have a very different food-safety culture than we did two years ago.”
The restaurant has seen a spate of foodborne illness outbreaks in the last several years. In the fall of 2015, an outbreak of E. coli infections linked to the restaurant affected 55 people across 11 states. Then, an outbreak of norovirus sickened more than 100 patrons in Boston. Another outbreak of norovirus in Virginia was traced to a sick employee. Last summer, an Ohio restaurant was closed for a day after 647 customers became ill from a toxin that occurs in food left at unsafe temperatures.
The outbreaks led Niccol’s predecessor, Steve Ells, to step down in late 2017. Niccol, who came to Chipotle from Taco Bell, immediately made improving food-safety measures across the company a priority. In one of his initial actions, Chipotle put an employee wellness check in place, which requires every worker to answer screening questions to ensure that they are healthy enough to handle other people’s food. Niccol said, “Nobody gets to the back of the restaurant without going through a wellness check.”
Any worker who reports having symptoms of illness is sent home to recover. The company also now has health professionals to diagnose workers and are giving those who are ill paid time off. Tables at Chipotle restaurants are now cleaned with a norovirus-killing cleaner, preventing the spread of a very contagious virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea. Niccol said, “We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard to make sure that the dining room gets sanitized in a way that it hasn’t been in the past.”