Chipotle Tests RFID Tech to Safeguard Food

The identification system will help the QSR respond to food safety and quality concerns faster.

April 04, 2022

Chipotle Employee in the Fridge Getting Food Supplies

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif.— Chipotle Mexican Grill announced it is testing radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology to enhance its traceability and inventory systems at its Chicago distribution center and about 200 restaurants in the greater Chicago area, according to a news release.

"RFID labels transform inventory management into an automatic, digital function that optimizes restaurant operations and gives our Restaurant Support Centers access to inventory data in real-time," said Scott Boatwright, chief restaurant officer. "This integrated technology is improving our employee experience in participating restaurants while also benefiting our supply partners."

Chipotle says it’s purchased more than 35 million pounds of locally grown produce in 2021 and has spent more than $400 million in food premiums over the past two years to buy responsibly sourced and humanely raised ingredients. The brand is giving further transparency into the direct source of its ingredients. The company has worked with the Auburn University RFID Lab to refine the pilot program, which is being tested on meat, dairy and avocados from five Chipotle suppliers. Ingredients in the test arrive at Chipotle restaurants affixed with RFID-enabled case labels and are scanned by RFID readers, and the tech-enabled traceability system is designed to allow the company to act quickly on food safety and quality concerns.

"We have been developing our RFID program for two years and see this innovation as the next evolution of traceability and food safety," said Laurie Schalow, chief corporate affairs and food safety officer. "We are excited to test this innovation in the field with our suppliers and restaurants to enhance our robust traceability program."

From 2015 to 2018, Chipotle experienced a string of foodborne illnesses, sickening more than 1,100 people. In 2020, the restaurant was ordered by the U.S. Department of Justice to pay a $25 million criminal fine and institute a comprehensive food safety program to resolve criminal charges that it “adulterated” food. The fine was the largest ever imposed in a food safety case.

The criminal charges stem, in part, from incidents related to outbreaks in Chipotle restaurants of norovirus, a highly contagious pathogen that can be easily transmitted by infected food workers handling ready-to-eat foods and their ingredients.

“Chipotle failed to ensure that its employees both understood and complied with its food safety protocols, resulting in hundreds of customers across the country getting sick,” said United States Attorney Nick Hanna.

Chipotle admitted that it had at least five food safety incidents at various restaurants around the country, which stemmed primarily from store-level employees’ failure to follow Chipotle’s food safety policies and procedures, including the policy requiring the exclusion of restaurant employees who were sick or recently had been sick, as well as a failure by restaurant employees to hold food at appropriate temperatures to prevent and control for the growth of foodborne pathogens.

“This case highlights why it is important for restaurants and members of the food services industry to ensure that managers and employees consistently follow food safety policies,” said Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division. “The Department of Justice will vigorously enforce food safety laws in order to protect public health.”

Food safety resources from NACS, allied industry groups and associations, and the federal government can help convenience store retailers enhance their safe food handling practices and reduce the risk of foodborne illness.

Learn how the foodservice category performed in c-stores in 2021 and get a look at what’s ahead in the foodservice category deep dive at the NACS State of the Industry Summit, April 12-14, at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare, Chicago. Matt High, senior made to order, category sales manager, Sheetz, will present key insights about the category’s performance in 2021 and share how Sheetz remains top of mind with customers. Register for the SOI Summit today.