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Chipotle’s Bad Run

It’s been a tough couple of days for America’s favorite fast casual food chain.

The trouble kicked off last month with the closure of 43 Washington and Oregon restaurants after the chain was linked to an E. coli outbreak at six restaurants in the area. That may look like something of an overreaction, and in the chain’s own words they were “out of an abundance of caution,” reported The Washington Post.

Except apparently not quite, because in the month that followed Chipotle has been dogged by outbreaks in Illinois, Pennsylvania and a sneaking suspicion that the issue was more than a fluke or bad luck.

And then there was Boston, where a Chipotle catering largely to Boston College students hit those students with norovirus right before finals.

Another restaurant closure, 80 sick students sitting out finals later and things are not looking great for Chipotle.

What’s going on?

Well it isn’t clear yet — nor is it a lock the Boston students’ mass vomiting outbreak of 2015 is actually the chain’s fault (tests are still being run). But Chipotle is still moving fast, closing dozens of locations nationwide, sanitizing everything that isn’t made of soap and hiring food consultants to avoid this type of adventure in the future. It is also updating its supply chain practices and DNA testing its produce.

E. coli outbreaks are bad news — Taco Bell, despite quickly pinpointing the problem to a bad batch of shredded lettuce in the Northeast, enjoyed five straight quarters of negative growth. And that’s Taco Bell, a firm that (unlike Chipotle) does not exactly advertise the healthiness or purity of its food.

Chipotle on the other hand, runs with the slogan “food with integrity,” which is something of a harder sale if its reputation is tainted by widespread E. coli outbreaks.

“They’re trying to be local and serve food with integrity, but as you grow it becomes incredibly complex and difficult and challenging,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of industry research firm Technomic. “When you look at what’s going on, how they’re expanding, the outbreak was almost bound to happen.”

But Tristano remains cheerful about the chain’s longer-term prospects.

“Consumers have a surprisingly short memory,” he said. “I would be surprised if it’s still affecting them by mid-next year.”

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