Chipotle’s Troubles Aren’t Behind It, But Bounce-back Is Hoped For

 

Chipotle Food Safety
(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

When a restaurant chain priding itself on fresh, locally-sourced and made-to-order finds itself in trouble because of sickened customers, a hard look at everything in the system is necessary. That’s Chipotle Mexican Grill’s position today, after e-Coli and other toxic outbreaks in stores across the country.

Maybe, company officials seem to have concluded, ‘all fresh’ can be ‘too fresh’, to a point where heavy reliance on young, inexperienced workers, people not used to following strict protocols (if they even understand what ‘protocols’ means!) can be poisonous to not only people but also to stock prices and profits. And, of course, customer counts.

Having suffered norovirus outbreaks in several states and eColi incidents in more, causing harm to more than 500 people, facing a grand jury subpoena in California and indications that both the Justice Department and the FDA may be considering bringing criminal charges against the company, Chipotle officials have good reason to fear life-threatening damage to the company’s reputation among a waning client base.

(A popular food industry blogger who’s reported several times on Chipotle’s troubles says he has repeatedly advised his adult children to not patronize the chain’s outlets until its problems are solved – as he has himself done. That reporter reaches a sizable number of people within the food-selling community, and his words, based on some thirty years of experience as a food trade journalist, are taken seriously – so one may assume his familial advice to choose somewhere else to spend your eating-out dollars will, and probably already has, negatively impact Chipotle’s customer count and its profits.)

What’s gone wrong? How, so quickly, did a company that, as qsrmagazine.com put it, “took 22 years to transform itself from a burrito stand to a $23 billion brand” find that something in its core business plan – to be the freshest of the fresh, the most locally sourced it’s possible to be, and have flexible offerings at reasonable price points – is letting it down?

Amazingly, after close analyses of systems, equipment and food sources, the company has, to date (Jan. 23), been unable to what caused either of the two types of outbreaks (eColi and norovirus) it’s suffered.

Nevertheless, Chipotle has created and implemented an “enhanced food safety program [that] is the product of a comprehensive reassessment of its food safety practices conducted with industry leading experts that included a farm-to-fork assessment of each ingredient Chipotle uses with an eye toward establishing the highest standards for safety,” a Jan. 19 press release stated.

That release said the new program’s many components include:

  • High-resolution DNA-based testing of many ingredients designed to ensure the quality and safety of ingredients before they are shipped to restaurants — a testing program that far exceeds requirements of state and federal regulatory agencies, as well as industry standards.
  • Changes to food prep and food handling practices, including washing and cutting of some produce items (such as tomatoes and romaine lettuce) and shredding cheese in central kitchens, blanching of some produce items (including avocados, onions and limes) in its restaurants, and new protocols for marinating chicken and steak.
  • Enhanced internal training to ensure that all employees thoroughly understand the company’s high standards for food safety and food handling.
  • Paid sick leave helping to ensure that ill employees have no incentive to work while ill.

Beyond that – way beyond that – the company will broadcast a company-wide meeting between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on February 8 “to thank employees for their extraordinary work implementing Chipotle’s comprehensive new food safety program in their restaurants, as well as outlining for all employees the steps that have been taken outside the restaurants to make Chipotle ingredients safer than ever.”

The release added that, at that meeting, “the company will also share information as to what may have  caused some customers to become ill in 2015.”

‘May’ being the operative word there: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still is looking into potential causes, and had, as of last week, come to no conclusions.

While it is fully understandable that Chipotle wants to reassure the public, staff and investors that being-implemented changes will [1] result in the rehiring of staff of 43 Washington and Oregon restaurants closed last year because of the health issues [2] attract aspiring eaters back and [3] boost sales enough to at least partially recover from the 25% share price loss since last October, the company has its work cut out for it.

 

Natural Red, Green Pigments Extracted from Seaweed By North Korea Company

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North Korea’s Tongmyong Joint Venture company has patented a process for extracting red and green natural food pigment from seaweed in a way that produces two to five percent more product than do the popular pulverizing or freezing techniques, the Pyongyang Times has reported.

So far, the differently-mined pigments are being used in the manufacture of hair and body shampoo, liquid laundry soap, carbonated juices and more. More consumable applications are under consideration, the paper reported.

Quoting Kang Sung Hyok, the principal developer of the new process, the Pyongyang Times said an advantage of the system is that, unlike the widely-used bleaching process, it maintains the shape integrity of the pigment, leaving it better able to be adapted to coloring processes for many foods and other products.

The green pigment is said to be largely comprised of chlorophyll, and the red one is pycobilin and carotene.

The developers of the new system say they’ve only begun to explore its potential uses, given that there are more than 100 species of seaweed in the waters around Korea, and some of them are recognized as being of a quality level suitable for pigment extraction.

After Decade+ Away, Dunkin’ Donuts Is Returning to Beijing This Month

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While maintaining a presence in China with stores in Shanghai, Shenyang and Fushun, Dunkin’ Donuts decided around the turn of the century that Beijing wasn’t a viable market, and the company closed its stores there. Now, DD is coming back, with one location scheduled to open before Chinese New Year (Feb. 8), two more opening  shortly thereafter, and “a handful of others” due to come online later, according to The Beijinger.com.

What’s changed in Beijing? A growth in the popularity of coffee, spurred in part my Starbucks’ growing presence – that company has 1,500 locations in a total of 90 Chinese cities, according to The National Geographic – as well a spurt in the count of local coffee shops. The latter tend to offer premier coffee both because of its quality and because it is seen as prestigious, an important factor to Chinese consumers, National Geographic (NG) notes.

A large part of Starbucks success, the magazine says, has evolved from the company’s ability to offer a broad range of the sweetish drinks favored, over plain, black coffee, by the Chinese and, as or more important, Starbucks’ willingness to cater to the local market with such Chinese preferences as green tea frappuccinos, red bean scones and, during the Mid-Autumn and Dragon Boat festivals, such favorites of those events as mooncakes (“round pastries stuffed with red bean or lotus seed paste and whole salted egg yolks, these last representing the fertility-associated full moon, NG says) and zongzi (“a traditional Chinese food made of glutinous rise stuffed with various fillings and wrapped in bamboo, reed or other flat leaves,” Wikipedia says). Mooncakes and zongzi are to those festivals, respectively, as funnel cake is to many similar events in the U.S.

Apparently a problem for Dunkin’ Donuts in its earlier Beijing incarnations was the quality of its coffee – too often seen by the locals as worth by-passing – and the scarcity of its donuts, which apparently were prepared so infrequently that on-the-shelf selections and quantities tended to be limited. The upcoming stores are expected to take after Shanghai’s path with offerings keyed to the local diet. One of them, featuring dry pork and seaweed, is not recommended by the author of The Beijinger article!

That article said a DD spokesperson confirmed the openings cited here are “imminent,” and other locations should follow shortly as the company aims to open some 1,400 stores to complement the 17 or so in the country’s east and northeast, a former employee told The Beijinger. That large expansion plan was announced around a year ago, but only now seems to be moving toward fruition.

 

Nestle Addressing Human Rights Abuses in Thailand’s Seafood Industry

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There have been a substantial number of reports in recent years about human rights abuses by some shrimp-harvesting companies in Thailand. Now Nestle, a major globally-active corporation and a significant importer, processor and distributor of seafood, has established an Action Plan “committed to eliminating forced labor in our seafood supply chain in Thailand,” in the words of Magdi Batato, the company’s Executive Vice President of Operations.

In announcing the Action Plan, he said Nestle will be “working alongside other stakeholders to tackle this serious and complex issue.” He noted that the plan “takes into account recommendations from global NGO Verrite’, which works to help companies understand and tackle labor issues,” a Nestle website said.

A related Nestle website, an expansion of the previously-cited one, stressed that the company is “fully committed to ensuring that our products are not associated with forced labor through our mandatory Nestle Supplier Code and Responsible Sourcing Guidelines (RSG).” Those guidelines “require all of our suppliers to respect human rights and to comply with all applicable labor laws; In the case of fish and seafood, we are, for example, engaging with our suppliers in Thailand to identify any potential unlawful labor practices and pursue appropriate actions to eliminate [them] from our supply chain.”

The issues covered in the Action Plan include:

  • The cost of working papers, accommodation, supplies, food deducted from wages;
  • Limited freedom of movement or freedom to quit without penalty;
  • Recruitment-related fees charged to workers, sometimes in the form of salary deductions;
  • Constraining ability to quit or risk being fired for complaining;
  • Verbal and physical abuse for complaining or for slow work;
  • Workplace environment, living conditions Hazardous work that has resulted, for some, in severe individual injuries;
  • Poor living conditions (personal care) with limited respect of privacy;
  • Use of illegal substances;
  • Poor worker health (because of unbalanced diet);
  • Wages, benefits and working time [including’ excessive overtime; (16+ hour work days for fishermen)
  • Wages withheld until end of employment term constraining workers from complaining or quitting;
  • Undocumented overtime;
  • Child Labor Teenage and juvenile labor.

Among the Plan’s objectives are:

  • Define and communicate requirements to boat owners and/or captains, including recruitment practices and living/working conditions for boat workers. Building on the Marine Catch Purchasing Document, or any other industry recognized best practice, create a set of requirements for boat owners and captains. Requirements will:
  • Be communicated to boat owners (e.g. through contract or visuals),
  • Cover traceability, recruitment practices, fish catching system, living and working conditions for boat workers,
  • Be potentially handed over with an implementation toolkit composed of Employment Contract Template and rules, Worker ID cards, template to monitor worker’s names, working time, salary, and associated deductions if any.And implementation “will be verified,” the Plan notes.
    • Implement a training program for boat owners and/or captains.

    Based on requirements, and together with industry partners and stakeholders within the Thailand Seafood Industry, create a training hub to generate awareness and provide education to ensure effective worker protections in priority areas as determined by Verite’. This training hub may take the form of a “demonstration boat” or “university” where a training program will be given to electable boat owners/captains. As reward and enabler for continuous improvement, program will include a mechanism to apply for financial support to speed up the implementation of best practices learned.

  • Based on the application to the mechanism for financial support, award financial support (in the form of sponsoring or micro credit) for e.g. worker personal protective and care equipment, boat lodging and cooking facilities etc.

Effective use of financial support will be verified.

  • Implement an awareness raising campaign on human rights and labor conditions, targeting primarily boat workers.

In cooperation with local authority and industry partners and stakeholders in the Thailand Seafood Industry, create an awareness raising campaign, addressing at first the topics of labor standards & health and safety at the workplace.

  • Campaign to be deployed in locations identified as impactful for migrant workforce & linked with regular boat’s docking, including the introduction of a grievance mechanism & providing some immediate tangible personal benefits to workers (distribution of free personal & safety care Findings, foods, or equipment’s such as cap/gloves/sunglasses).
  • Campaign will incorporate an anonymous reporting system to identify worst form of labor conditions to be addressed by the Emergency Response Team.
  • Enable the work of a Migrant Workforce Emergency Response team. Identify a 3rd party partner experienced in protecting individuals from the worst form of labour conditions. Deploy and empower this partner organization as the Migrant Workforce Emergency Response Team.
  • Team will be in charge to deploy the necessary assessments to identify individuals in need of immediate assistance.
  • Team will be assisted by a network of other 3rd party local NGOs, to be funded by parties, having the authority to immediately remediate and mobilize any sort of short-term actions to protect the human integrity of the identified individuals (up to e.g. buying debt, regularizing working permits, relocating individuals).
  • Create and implement a fishing vessels verification program.
  • By leveraging opportunities to collaborate with industry partners and stakeholders in the Thailand Seafood Industry, implement, at first, an internal audit program verifying working (labor and health and safety at workplace) conditions in fishing vessels for 100% of the fleet used.
  • Secondly, alongside with monitoring of compliance through Key Performance Indicators, randomly select boats on a monthly basis to undergo a 3rd party verification audit by an independent organization, executed every quarter. 3rd party verification audit should include interview of boat workers and establish history of their working career in the region and country.

An integral part of the Action Plan is a mandate that a Nestle leader be appointed to oversee implementation of the Plan. This leader – who may be part- or full-time, whichever proves to be necessary – will coordinate with relevant parties and ensure all parts of the Plan are functioning as they are supposed to.

 

More Leafy Greens Consumption Reduces Risks of Glaucoma: Study

Dark-Leafy-Greens-3

Regular consumption of leafy greens  such as lettuce, kale spinach and chard could reduce ones risk of developing open-angle glaucoma, according to results of a study published January 14 in JAMA Opthalmology. The lead researcher was Jae H. Kang, ScD, of Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

An analysis by Dr. Kang and her colleagues found nitrate-rich foods such as leafy greens can cut risks of regular glaucoma by 20-30% for most people and by as much as 40-50% for individuals with early paracentral (central) visual field loss.

Their study followed earlier research that indicated Nitric oxide (NO) is involved with both glaucoma and ocular blood circulation. Nearly 80% of NO is obtained by the body from leafy greens, the authors of this study declared.

Two groups were studied – 121,700 females in the Nurses’ Health Study, between 1984-2012, from when the women were 30-35 years of age, and 51,529 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, which ran between 1986 and 2012, starting when the subjects were between 40-75 years of age. More than 85% of the participants were monitored every 2 to 4 years through mailed questionnaires that explored their health, diet and disease status. The women’s questionnaire consisted of 126 queries; The men’s contained 131.

In preparing to do the analysis, the researchers eliminated participants affected by diseases that could cause them to alter their diet, as well as individuals younger than 40 – the age at which one’s risk for developing glaucoma noticeably increases. The records of 63,893 women and 41,094 men were included in the analysis, which represented 1,678,713 person-years of follow-ups.

In the nearly 105,000 analysis subjects, 433 were found during the analysis to have early paracentral vision field loss, and 835 suffered from peripheral vision field loss.

Sub groups had consumer greater or lesser amounts of leafy greens, and the detailed break-down of the analysis indicated that “higher dietary nitrate and green leafy vegetable intake was associated with a lower POAG (primary open-angle glaucoma) risk, particularly with early paracentral vision field loss as a diagnosis.”

 

Diebold App Aims To Eliminate Supermarket Checkout Lines

 

diebold_appHey retailers, here’s a terrifying experiment to see just how honest your customers are: a mobile-enabled self-checkout concept from Diebold. Placing an awful lot of trust in shoppers, the solution from Diebold.  (Photo/caption: Yahoo.)

Much of the time, today, supermarket customers in stores with self-checkout systems save time. But sometimes they don’t – when, for example, they have too many barcode-free items that must be looked up, or when the system’s scale refuses to recognize that everything in the ‘checkout area’ is supposed to be there.

If one potentially difficult problem can be overcome, a new app from Diebold, a leader in self-service solutions since the early (1980’s) days of the bar code, could totally eliminate the issues that can make today’s self-checkout systems frustrating.

Officially launching this weekend at the National Retail Federation’s ‘BIG’ Show (Jan. 17-19) in New York, this mobile-enabled system will let shoppers scan items as they’re being moved from shelves to the shopping cart. Then, when shopping is finished, the consumer taps his or her app-containing smart phone at the self-service checkout, and a payment is made from the shopper’s mobile wallet. Then, the check-out machine will provide a receipt and can even function as an ATM, providing cash-back, too.

But what if the shopper ‘forgets’ to scan an item? Ay, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet said lo those many years ago, there’s the rub – the fly in the ointment, the sticking point. (The latter, in the old game of lawn bowls, is what ‘the rub refers to: A point where the lawn’s surface isn’t smooth to allow a bowled ball to pass smoothly.)

Diebold hasn’t announced a solution to that issue – a far-from-minor point that could, figuratively and literally, send this concept back to the drawing board.

Another issue is, of course, those items that aren’t bar-coded (usually because they need to be weighed and/or counted) and can’t, as a result, be scanned.

The early days of the bar code were plagued by similar problems – from developing the codes themselves (requiring an unprecedented level of cooperation among manufacturers and food retailers) to printing issues, through the overall cost of systems capable of reading universal product codes (UPCs).

As the web site barcoding.com sums it up, “On June 26, 1974, all the tests were done, all the proposals were complete, all the standards were set, and at a Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio, a single pack of chewing gum became the first retail product sold with the help of a scanner. Decades of schemes and billions of dollars in investments now became a practical reality.”

Not least because of the cost of installing new equipment, it took a while for the new system to get really settled in at the retail supermarket level: “In 1978 less than one percent of grocery stores nationwide had scanners,” Barcoding.com says. “By mid-1981, the figure was ten percent; Three years later it was 33 percent.”

Today, not only is every significant food retailer in the U.S. equipped with scanners, every food warehouse is, and distribution facilities for virtually every other kind of product depend on these codes for inventory handling and tracking.

How the ‘first step’ – the at-the-shelf item-count – issue will be resolved. But rest assured, it will be, and Diebold’s app, and undoubtedly others like it, will inadvertently do something magical for retailers: Cut their costs, without costing them much of anything. (The scanning-the-mobile-device issue should be a technically easy one to address by app creators, so their product is compatible with existing checkout scanners.).

Watch this space!

Thai Company Marketing Cricket-Based Pasta

cricketpastapackage

The concept of eating insects, or being able to buy consumer products made from insects, is hardly new. What is new – relatively new, anyway – is the exceptionally wide range of bug-based products in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, the Far East and elsewhere.

One of the latest players in this growing field is Thailand-based Bugsolutely, whose first product, Cricket Pasta, was launched late last year – mere months after this company was founded.

With crickets being 70% protein, that necessary dietary ingredient is, of course, a significant portion of Cricket Pasta’s volume. The company’s web site stresses, though, that this pasta also contains goodly amounts of calcium, iron, vitamin B12 and Omega 3 oil.

From a food production perspective, crickets are an excellent protein source because they require very little water. Not by coincidence, this and the fact they can be easily raised, in a ‘farm-like-way, makes crickets an excellent food source for creatures other than humans that humans, for whatever reason, keep and sustain as a ‘hobby’. (Such creatures include birds, fish and even other insects, many of which have, in captivity, been fed mealworms. However, “In recent times ( [the] past twenty years) the Common House Cricket has slowly emerged as a much better feeder insect since it is more digestible, easier to gutload and dust with nutrients and is more readily acceptable than the harder skinned mealworm,” says the Chameleon News website. (Who’d have imagined such a site would exist?)

Who, indeed, would have imagined that the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations would produce, close to three years ago, a report entitled “Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security?”

Well, not only did the FAO generate such a report, it has since been the inspiration for such unlikely studies as one at the School of Visual Arts in New York City where, Popular Science magazine reported last May, students Lucy Knops and Julie Plevin soberly set about coming up, in 2013, with something they called Critter Bitters, combining alcohol of several sorts – Bourbon, vodka, and neutral grain spirits – with carefully preserved remains of once-thriving crickets, then macerating the combinations – they did similar studies with other bugs, too – long enough for the latter to absorb and integrate the essence, as it were, of the former. The result? Something some people might take a fancy to drinking.

“The case needs to be made to consumers that eating insects is not only good for their health, it is good for the planet,” Knops and Plevin wrote in a paper on their project. They figured that while cricket-based bitters might not solve the food problem, the product could help overcome a psychological one.

“People are more open to trying new things when there are cocktails involved,” Plevin says.

People also seem inclined, and have been for eons, to try eating insects when they are slathered in chocolate. And why not? Both have nutritional value and can be said to be good for you – in appropriate doses, of course.

Fortune Magazine last August had a feature article that declared, “Insect eating is common in 80% of the world’s countries – but not in the U.S. or Europe. Now several entrepreneurs are working to bring the edible insect market to the U.S. and Europe.”

That article went on to note that an array or restaurants, including Toloache in New York City and Typhoon in Santa Monica CA, now offer assorted insect-based items on their menus – items such as grasshopper tacos (see 2nd column from right) and stir-fried silkworm pupae (right hand column, along with a selection of other insect-based offerings).

Entomarket.com offers a broad assortment of insect-based edibles, as does Amazon (and here).

Melanie Haiken reported in Forbes in July of 2014 how scientists and others involved in panel discussions at the Institute of Food Technologies meeting a month earlier declared that “insects are the food of the future.”

“Not only are they good for you,” she wrote, they’re a low-cost alternative to animal protein with far less impact on the environment.”

Ms Haiken went on:

“And we’re going to need new sources of protein,  because as time goes on there’s just not going to be enough meat to go around. Consider these startling stats:

  • 70 million: The number of people added to the planet’s population every year
  • 9 billion: The world population by 2050 as projected by current population growth rates
  • 70 percent: The percentage of agricultural land devoted to livestock production
  • 30 percent: The percentage of all the world’s land used to raise livestock

If you are really interested in this subject, as many people should be, that FAO report will be an eye-opener. It discusses, among other things, ‘farming’ insects, how available various ones are in several countries, examples of promising edible insect products for human consumption, and much, much more.