By Matt Wotus
March 15, 2016
Caption : In the latest chapter of the Chipotle health saga, an outbreak of E. coli led to 53 reported cases in nine different states in October and November of last year.     

Though perennially popular among Millennials, Chipotle’s recent string of health incidents have left some wondering if the burritos are worth it. Last week, a Chipotle in Boston closed when four employees reported feeling sick and one tested positive for norovirus. In October and November of last year, an outbreak of E. coli led to 53 reported cases in nine different states.

The Outbreak

After cases of E. coli 026, a specific kind of the bacteria, started to appear in Washington and Oregon in the fall, Chipotle voluntarily closed 43 restaurants in the two states. All were reopened on Nov. 11 after undergoing a deep cleansing effort and being restocked with fresh ingredients.

However, by Nov. 4, there were 39 cases of E. coli, which increased to 52 by Dec. 4. Since then, there has been one additional case of E. coli reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of the 53 cases, 20 have resulted in hospitalizations, but there haven’t been any deaths.

Along with Washington and Oregon, people fell ill with the illness in California, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

The Aftermath

In the weeks following the outbreak, Chipotle made sure to take actions necessary to avoid any similar incidents in the future.

According to the company’s website, locations in the areas of the outbreaks underwent additional deep cleaning and sanitization, and all surfaces and equipment were tested to make sure they were free of the bacteria. Food items in both area restaurants and distribution centers were tested by Chipotle itself, as well as other health officials.

The restaurant chain assured customers that all locations, as well as its supply chain, have been rid of any ingredients that were likely to have been connected with the E. coli outbreak. In the 2,500 tests Chipotle conducted on food, surfaces, and equipment, it said there was no sign of the bacteria.

Additionally, the Denver-based company is making changes to how its food is cooked, such as dipping onions in boiling water to kill germs, marinating raw chicken in re-sealable bags instead of bowls, testing 60 samples of every 2,000 pounds of steak before it’s sent to restaurants, and chopping ingredients such as tomatoes and cilantro at a centralized location, instead of stores, so they can be tested.

The Millennial Generation

It’s no secret the Millennial generation loves Chipotle and Chipotle loves the Millennial generation.

According to a survey of 135,000 consumers by Technomic, a restaurant research firm based in Chicago, 49.1 percent of those who said they visited Chipotle at least once a month were Millennials. It is important to note, however, that the survey identified Millennials as those born between 1977 and 1992, differing from how the U.S. Census Bureau describe them.

While the bureau classifies Millennials as those born between 1982 and 2000, some definitions expand the grouping to include the late 1970s.

So how are Millennials—who tend to go out to eat more, and prefer fast-casual, healthy options—reacting to the chain’s health scares?

Sally Rana, a sophomore undecided major at UNC-Chapel Hill, said she doesn’t go to Chipotle often, but has always been interested in the restaurant’s appeal to younger generations.

“I haven’t gone to Chipotle very often, however it is definitely a place where several college students hang out, so I’m interested in the food it has and how healthy it is,” she said.

While Rana said she has heard only heard a little bit about the E. coli outbreak, it concerns her and would make her think twice about ordering food from Chipotle.

“I feel like I want to know more about how the situation was even able to come to be, and if that was a result of something accidental or a result of poor practice on the part of Chipotle and the administration,” she said. “I would go, but I would be very hesitant to get food and I would likely suggest going to an alternative restaurant that serves similar food.”

Chase ReBarker, a junior biomedical engineering major at UNC, said he felt sick after recently eating at Chipotle, where he had a pork burrito bowl. As a result, he said he would be cautious about eating at the restaurant, but would still go because of the social experience it offers.

Other students, though, felt more strongly about Chipotle.

“I still eat it because the E. coli breakout wasn’t in my region,” said Mary Ellis, a senior global studies and political science major at UNC. “So I am not worried about getting E. coli from the usual locations I go to.”

She said it also helps that none of the food served at Chipotle contains genetically modified organism (GMO) ingredients. The company removed all GMO ingredients from food served in its restaurants in April 2015, two years after promising to do so.

“It’s a better fast food alternative to know that the ingredients don’t have all the additives that most fast food has,” Ellis said. “I feel like I’m not treating my body poorly when I’m eating there.”

Removing GMO ingredients was a big win for the younger generations, such as Millennials, as research has found they are more willing to pay higher prices for healthier foods.

According to a Nielsen study spanning 60 nations, 43 percent of those surveyed said foods without GMOs are “very important” to them. Researchers found that the concern over GMOs is higher than concerns over other health aspects of food, such as lower calories and artificial flavors.

The same study found that Millennials are more likely than other generations to pay a higher price for healthy foods, as 29 percent said they are “very willing” to do so, compared to 26 percent of Generation X and 23 percent of Baby Boomers.

Chipotle itself believes consumers, and especially Millennials, are more concerned nowadays about how their food is raised and prepared than in previous generations, which is why the company makes sure to focus on the idea of food sourcing and organic farming in its marketing.

Specifically, Chipotle uses non-traditional media, such as online and social media, and its ability to offer a fresh healthy meal to try to win over Millennials and target them based on their personalities.

It seems to be working.

While Rana remains concerned about the E. coli outbreak, she said she is definitely more attracted to Chipotle because of the effort it makes to create a healthy meal.

“It definitely appeals to me a lot more to know that any sort of company is putting an effort into maintaining a healthy practice and that a fast food rest is making an effort to limit the excess chemicals and unhealthy ingredients that they put into the food,” she said. “I feel like, over the past several years, I have become much more understanding of the issues of processed foods on the body, and I am more likely to gravitate toward a restaurant that makes an effort to eliminate them.”

Looking toward the future, it’ll be interesting to see just how health-conscious Millennials are. Will they stick by Chipotle’s side and continue to make up a large chunk of its consumer base, or will the effects of the E. coli outbreak and more recent scares cause them to look for alternative places to eat?

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