In the wake of outbreaks of E. coli and norovirus, Chipotle has made a relatively public display of its efforts to improve — giving away free food while implementing new safety standards. However, the burrito chain believes that one federal agency’s constant updates about these outbreaks ultimately resulted in customers fretting too much about food safety.
On Dec. 21, 2015, while Chipotle was still reeling from the multiple outbreaks, a lawyer for the company sent a letter [PDF] to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accusing the agency of failing to follow its own rules and federal laws related to updating the public about investigations into foodborne illnesses.
The company’s lawyers claimed that the CDC issued too many updates about the situation that “unnecessarily intensified the public’s concern.”
“The piecemeal release of information which does not inform the public of investigatory benchmarks or remedial steps by Chipotle only acts to create public panic,” wrote Chipotle attorney Bryant Messner.
According to the 24-page complaint letter, Chipotle admits that early announcements and updates were necessary, but that ongoing updates were “not useful and did not serve to inform the public of a significant health risk.”
Instead, the company contends that the updates “misrepresented” the outbreak.
“We are not claiming that the CDC intentionally misrepresented certain information,” the letter states. “However, certain web updates actually misinformed the public because they were confusing and unclear.”
Chipotle claims a Dec. 4 update on the CDC’s website misinformed the public on the status of the outbreak, as it reported seven additional reported E. coli O26 cases, including one in Pennsylvania and one in Maryland.
The company says there was no evidence that the illnesses in those state were connected to Chipotle, however, the CDC “made no effort to advise the public that these ill individuals had no known contact with Chipotle.”
“As such, the update erroneously exaggerated the outbreak and created needless confusion as to whether Pennsylvania and Maryland Chipotle restaurants were linked to E. coli,” the letter states. “This premature release of information does not provide the public with the best information available and actually misinforms the public.”
In addition to accusing the agency of making unnecessary updates on the outbreaks and investigations, Chipotle contends that the agencies provided misleading comments to the media.
In one instance, Chipotle says a CDC rep was quoted by a news organization as suggesting that the source of the outbreak — which was never determined — may not have been meat because a “couple of vegetarians” were among those who became ill.
“There was no impending public health risk which necessitated the statements,” the letter states. “Moreover, these comments were not an accurate representation of the status of the investigation.”
The CDC responded to Chipotle’s assertions in a letter [PDF] of its own offering an explanation for each of the company’s concerns, noting that it followed specific guidelines and procedures in attempting to “protect and inform the public” about the initial E. coli outbreak over several months
“We disagree that there was ‘no ongoing threat’ at the time of the web postings, particularly since the investigation of these two outbreaks linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill Restaurants has not identified a specific cause,” the letter states. “A public health professional would not conclude that transmission had ceased until at least several weeks after the last reported case.”
The agency says that it clearly stated in updates when consumers didn’t or couldn’t remember eating at a Chipotle restaurant before becoming ill. Additionally, the CDC says representative quotes about the outbreak accurately reflected the status of the investigations at that point in time.
CDC associate director for epidemiological sciences, Jeremy Sobel, tells Chipotle that it has the right to further challenge the agency’s actions during the outbreak.
However, a rep for Chipotle tells Bloomberg that there was no plan to appeal the CDC’s resolution.