An E. coli outbreak linked to the Chipotle restaurant chain has already led to major changes in the company's food production as it works to regain customers' trust.
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At least 52 people have been sickened in the multi-state outbreak that officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked to eating at Chipotle. Those infected ranged in age from 1 to 94 years old and became sick from Oct. 19 to Nov. 13, according to the CDC.
While health officials have not determined which specific ingredient was the source of the outbreak, Chipotle officials and CEO Steven Ells recently announced new food safety measures that could have a long-term impact on how Chipotle sources its ingredients.
Chipotle has long been supportive of using local ingredients fresh in the kitchen, but company officials said they are now doing more in central prep kitchens before food is sent out to stores in order to help guard against bacteria and other pathogens. For example, Chipotle said it is no longer washing and testing whole tomatoes for its salsa before packaging and shipping them to its local stores because it is not realistic to test every one and the testing process might not detect pathogens inside the tomato. Instead, Chipotle said the safest way to prepare the washed tomatoes is by testing them after they are diced. "The tomatoes that are now prepared in our centralized prep kitchens are washed, diced, and then washed again and tested before packaging and shipment to our restaurants," the company said.
In addition, the company said its restaurant teams are putting many fresh produce items in boiling water for 3 to 5 seconds to sanitize them before they are used in food preparation.
Chipotle CEO Steve Ells said the company is implementing multiple new procedures to safeguard customers, but that it was impossible to eliminate any risk.
"It is impossible to ensure that there is a zero percent chance of any kind of food-borne illness anytime anyone eats anywhere," Ells told the Associated Press.
The company said last week that it anticipates some local growers will not be able to adhere to the new strict safety requirements during the next produce season.
"Given the heightened requirements for produce -- chiefly the high resolution testing -- we believe that some of our local growers will not meet these enhanced standards," a Chipotle spokesman told ABC News last week. "We'll certainly look to work with suppliers that do, and to help others where we can, but at the moment, we aren't sure what the local program will look like. What we are sure of is that our commitment to using the very best ingredients we can remains as strong as ever."
Ells has announced that even with the new safety procedures there would be no price increase for consumers or suppliers.
"This is a cost that we will bear," Ells told the AP.
Chipotle did not immediately respond to requests for additional comment on if the food safety measures would affect all produce or just some items.
Last month, the company announced other new measures it has implemented to ensure food safety and handling, including testing fresh produce with DNA-based tests, and end-of-shelf-life testing to ensure ingredients are safe throughout their shelf life, while also looking to improve the supply chain by measuring performance data of vendors and suppliers, and enhancing employee training in food safety and handling.