AUSTRALIAN officials have rejected misleading media reports alleging Australian beef exports to the US are to blame for a crippling food safety outbreak at Mexican fast-food retail chain Chipotle.
Chipotle has radically overhauled its food safety practices and standards after the bacterial disease E.coli struck-down customers in various restaurants throughout the US last year.
The company’s share price plunged from an all-time high of US$760 last August to US$460 this week while social media has also been used by customers to frequently ventilate concerns over the food safety disaster.
In an apology statement, Chipotle Chair and founder Steve Ells said the E.coli outbreak that sickened 52 people - and a norovirus outbreak that claimed 140 victims at a single Chipotle restaurant in Boston - “have shown us that we need to do better, much better”.
“The fact that anyone has become ill eating at Chipotle is completely unacceptable to me and I am deeply sorry,” he said.
But the incident escalated after recent media reports - alleging the E. coli outbreak was most likely linked to Australian beef - incited official rejection from Australian authorities this week.
The reporting is understood to have been sparked by unattributed comments from a source inside Chipotle, quoted in a recent Wall Street Journal article.
But the allegations contradict the US Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) formal investigation which concluded no link existed between the disease outbreak and any of the fast food chain’s 64 ingredients.
A spokesperson for the Federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources cited the CDC report to say there was no evidence linking Australian beef exports with the recent cases of food borne illness, associated with Chipotle.
The spokesperson said Australia had no US port of entry detections of bacterial contamination (E.coli), in about 491 million kilograms of beef exported in 2014 and 547 million kilograms of beef exported up until December 2015.
According to the CDC report of February 1 this year, ‘the investigation did not identify a specific food or ingredient linked to illness’, the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson also cited an article in Food Safety News quoting the US Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) of the same date, as saying, ‘distribution data shared by Chipotle does not establish a link between Australian beef, or any single source of beef, and the Chipotle restaurants where case patients reported consuming steak - moreover, of the 60 case patients only eight reported consuming steak’.
The spokesperson said Australia’s export certification system was “extremely stringent and is designed to ensure our trading partners can have confidence in the safety of our products”.
“The US FSIS maintains confidence in our beef production system and continues to recognise it as equivalent to the US system,” the spokesperson said.
“The 2015 US FSIS audit of Australia’s meat production system, which has been recently received in draft by the Department, again confirms that the Australian system is equivalent to the US system.”
Chipotle has subsequently refused to comment on the speculative media reports of Australian beef being privately blamed for the disease outbreak.
But it has acknowledged the official investigation’s findings that no ingredient was identified as the cause.
Chipotle Communications director Chris Arnold said “We are not blaming anyone - the investigation is over and no source was identified”.
“I would also note that FSIS, which is responsible for food safety with regard to meat, poultry and eggs, has said that the distribution data Chipotle provided through this investigation ‘does not establish a link between Australian beef, or any single source of beef, and the Chipotle restaurants where case patients reported consuming steak’,” he said.
Australian Meat Industry Council National Processing Director Stephen Martyn said Australia was the third largest beef exporter globally and was trusted and known for its quality produce.
Mr Martyn said Australia had a long history of safe and successful beef exports, with no illness due to E.coli being attributed to Australian beef, here or overseas, over the last 20 years.
“Australia has one of the most stringently controlled meat industries in the world and Australian beef producers should continue to have enormous confidence in Australian food safety, product integrity and traceability systems,” he said.
According to industry supplied figures, the US is Australia’s largest beef export market and was valued at AU$3.2 billion in 2015 comprising 70pc manufacturing beef while frozen grassfed beef was also prominent.
Chipotle has also suffered criticism in recent times for electing not to use ingredients containing Genetically Modified products on its menu; despite approval being granted by food safety regulators.
“While some studies have shown GMOs to be safe, most of this research was funded by companies that sell GMO seeds and did not evaluate long-term effects - more independent studies are needed,” the company’s website says.
However, Chipotle concedes most US animal feed is GM which means meat and dairy products served at its restaurants are likely to come from animals given “at least some GMO feed”.
Chipotle says to meet its GM-free challenge the 100pc grass-fed beef served in many of its restaurants is not fed GMO grain “or any grain, for that matter”.
In an opinion article in mid-2014, Chipotle Chair and founder Steve Ells outlined why his restaurant chain was sourcing grass-fed beef from Australia – to match its food ethics agenda and encourage US grass-fed beef production – with the local cattle herd reaching its lowest point in more than 60 years.
Rather than serve conventionally raised steak, Chipotle recently began sourcing some steak from ranches in Southern Australia, which is among the very best places in the world for raising beef cattle entirely on grass, he wrote.
“The meat produced by these ranchers is "grass-fed" in the truest sense of the term: The cattle spend their entire lives grazing on pastures or rangelands, eating only grass or forages (by definition, forages are hay and grass--corn is not forage),” he said.
“It meets or exceeds the husbandry standards set forth by the American Grassfed Association, not to mention all of the protocols we apply to our domestic Responsibly Raised beef.
“The cattle are raised without added hormones, antibiotics or growth promotants by ranchers committed to humane animal husbandry.
“In 2013, our company purchased about 45 million pounds of domestic Responsibly Raised beef; but the US supply isn't growing quickly enough to match our demand.”