By Emma Grace Fairchild:
Food safety is a complex process. It is also an industry that must constantly adapt to our changing technology and food supply. As consumers, we expect the foods we purchase and prepare to be safe and not to make us sick: however — from bacterial contamination in canned foods to environmental contaminants, like mold, that can make people sick or even kill them — this always has been a risk. With the organic and sustainable food movement during the last years came an increase in awareness of food quality and, possibly, the entire food supply chain’s failure to adjust to the overall process in order to keep food healthful and safe.
Something that I’ve observed working in food service is that the more steps there are in processing or preparing a food, the more chances there are for safety to be compromised. For example, if an animal raised for meat is raised in a factory farm, butchered in a high volume slaughterhouse and processed in a similar way, then packaged and sent to a distributor where it waits to be sent to a grocery store, and finally purchased and taken to someone’s home, there are many steps along the way where the temperature can fluctuate (allowing bacteria to grow) or for poor hygiene to contaminate the food. Factoring in incomplete cooking or contamination in your kitchen, there could be a higher risk of getting sick from any number of foodborne illnesses.
So, for a restaurant providing a high volume of meals, there is large margin of error for food anywhere in the distribution chain to be contaminated. However, this doesn’t mean that food from chain restaurants or grocery stores is any more dangerous than any other food.
The fast food chain Chipotle brought a lot of attention to food safety and foodborne illness. As a “casual” fast food chain, the restaurant prides itself on freshness, sustainable sourcing of ingredients, and handmade food, which proved to be very popular over the last years as it catered to the public’s growing interest in high quality and sustainable food. In 2015 Chipotle claimed responsibility for five outbreaks of foodborne illness across the country over six months that sickened more than 350 people. The news gathered nationwide attention and many people became unsure about eating at the chain restaurant. As one outbreak followed another, the chain that was previously praised for freshness and high quality food developed a rather unpleasant reputation from which it is still trying to recover a year later.
However, what the general public didn’t hear about was how the huge amount of attention that Chipotle received for the outbreaks was not indicative of just how many foodborne illnesses are reported every year in the United States. The total number is in fact quite large, and the contamination in Chipotle represented a very small percentage: approximately 500 people were sickened from the five outbreaks from Chipotle, but every year an estimated 47.8 million people fall ill from foodborne illnesses. Therefore, given the larger picture, the outbreaks of foodborne illnesses last year were heard about mainly in the context of Chipotle’s fresh “food with integrity” model failing.
I don’t believe this is a fair conclusion (and I’m not the only one). The bigger picture of our food supply and how we eat is undeniably unsustainable, given the tremendous amount of food waste, malnutrition and hunger in the world, as well as the growing number of children suffering health complications from obesity. Chipotle’s food service model promotes locally sourced ingredients, which benefits local economies and reduces the carbon footprint of foods, encourages the use of freshly prepared ingredients with a focus on quality, and minimizes processed foods while promoting sustainability. Considering these important contributions to the progress of our food supply, the way the chain claimed responsibility and reacted promptly, and the new safety measures put into place, I think the general public should move on. Despite our best efforts, sometimes foods carry foodborne illnesses. By educating ourselves on relative risk, appropriate safety measures, and asking for responsibly sourced and environmentally friendly foods, we strengthen efforts to have reliably safe and sustainable foods available.