After all of the food poisoning outbreaks it has experienced recently, Chipotle Mexican Grill announced it will close all of its stores nationwide for several hours next month to hold staff meetings about food safety.
The meetings will occur on Feb. 8. Chipotle has suffered from several outbreaks of E. coli, salmonella and norovirus that sickened more than 50 people in nine states in October and November. In December, Chipotle suffered from two more outbreaks. Roughly 140 students at Boston College were infected with norovirus and a second new incidence of E. coli broke out, affecting five people in three states.
The chain, which prides itself on serving fresh food that isn't dependent on genetically modified organisms, faces a federal criminal investigation and a lawsuit from shareholders after the recent outbreaks. Some customers are suing Chipotle.
CEO Steve Ellis said last week he was "hopeful" the Centers for Disease Control would soon declare that the outbreaks were over. "We know that Chipotle is as safe as it’s ever been before," he said Jan. 13 at a conference in Orlando, according to Reuters.
The company's staff meeting will include all Chipotle staff at its more than 1,900 locations, said Danielle Moore, public relations and communications manager for Chipotle.
"We are hosting a national team meeting to thank our employees for their hard work through this difficult time, discuss some of the food safety changes we are implementing, and answer questions from employees," Moore told NBC News.
We "need to reassure our customers that this can't happen again, and that we are going to reduce the risk of this kind of an outbreak from occurring again to near zero," Ellis said at the conference.
Chipotle has vowed to work with suppliers and employees to eliminate foodborne illnesses, and its executives said it will step up its outreach to loyal customers next month to woo them back. Ells added that many changes have already been made to ensure food safety, including blanching onions before they're chopped to kill germs, and cutting tomatoes and lettuce in a centralized location instead of in individual restaurant kitchens.
The company is still waiting for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to declare the E. coli outbreak over, even though the CDC hasn't identified which ingredient was to blame. Chipotle has conceded that it may never be able to pinpoint where the outbreak started.
Chief financial officer Jack Hartung reports that 2016 will be rocky. "It's going to be messy in terms of margins," he said. "It's going to be messy in terms of earnings. The visibility is not going to be great."
The Chicago-based company has more than 1,900 restaurants, including 17 outside of the U.S.