Does your baby’s food contain toxic metals?

By Nailah John, Program Associate

As a mother, I once fed my baby with baby food only to later be told that some baby foods contain toxic metals at levels that exceed what experts and governing bodies say are safe. Congressional investigators have found dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals in many popular baby food brands. The World Health Organization says that the top 10 chemicals of concern for infants and children include arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury.  This exposure to heavy metals in childhood is linked to permanent dips in IQ, an increased risk of future criminal activity, and damaged long-term brain function.

Some pediatricians and children’s health experts say that heavy metals are found in soil and contaminate crops grown in it. Heavy metals can also get into food during manufacturing and packaging processes. However, the amount that is allowed in baby food products exceeds the limit. The nonprofit Healthy Babies led a national investigation and found that 95 percent of baby foods tested contain toxic chemicals. Fifteen foods accounted for half the risk, with rice-based foods at the top. Making these food and lifestyle changes can help reduce toxic metal residue:

  • Choose rice-free snacks over rice-based ones. Try a frozen banana or a chilled cucumber instead of rice-based teething biscuits.
  • Opt for oatmeal over rice cereal.
  • Give tap water over fruit juice.
  • Rather than sticking strictly to baby food made from sweet potatoes and carrots (which contain higher levels of metals), opt for baby food made from other fruits and vegetables.
  • Make your own baby food by buying, washing, and blending your own fruits and vegetables.
  • Don’t get stuck in the baby food phase. Baby food is meant to be transitional, used only for a few months. Introduce your babies to sources of protein like fish—salmon, tuna, cod, whitefish, and pollock.
  • Visit the pediatrician often in the first two years of your child’s life. This can help to identify any developmental problems.
  • Limit heavy metal exposure in other ways. Heavy metals are also found in peeling or chipping paint in older homes built before 1978.
  • Don’t smoke or vape as secondhand and even thirdhand smoke (or residue from smoking on furniture or clothes) may expose children to metals like cadmium and lead.

While individuals can do their part, the most significant changes will have to come through enforced legislation and stronger regulations on baby food. According to the recent congressional report, toxic metals in tested baby food eclipse safe levels, “including results up to 91 times the arsenic level, up to 177 times the lead level, up to 69 times the cadmium level, and up to 5 times the mercury level.” The report recommended that the Food and Drug Administration require baby food manufacturers to test their finished products for toxic heavy metals and label products that contain them. One of the most powerful ways of creating change is by calling your Member of Congress and urging them to use their voice to address the issue of heavy toxic metals in baby foods. As a mother, I plan to do so and so should you.

Vitaminwater making bold claims

Since its founding in 1899, NCL has been on the look-out for product claims that may be deceptive or misleading. So when we came across a few advertisements about vitaminwater recently, we were shocked to see that the company that manufactures vitaminwater, Glaceau (a Coca-Cola company), is suggesting that its products can keep you healthy or pre-empt the need for flu shots!

In a formal complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission in February 2011, NCL is pointing to print and television advertisements that suggest vitaminwater can replace flu shots or prevent illness and prey on consumers’ health concerns to sell a high-calorie product:

“These advertising claims are not only untrue; they constitute a public health menace. Stopping these vitaminwater claims, which contradict information by the Centers for Disease Control and other public health authorities, should be a top FTC priority,” stated Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of NCL.

The NCL complaint also urged the FTC to halt deceptive label statements for vitaminwater that describe the product as:

According to NCL, the statements are deceptive because the products on which they appear are not simply made from vitamins and water, but are made with crystalline fructose or other forms of sugar, and contain 125 calories per bottle.

“Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese; the last thing people need is sugar water with vitamins you could get from eating a healthy diet, or by taking a vitamin pill, Greenberg stated.

The FTC should act now, during cold and flu season, to stop vitaminwater’s outlandish claims,” she said.

Read NCL’s letter to the FTC here, or tell vitaminwater what you think of its ads here.

Consumers for Safe CBD is working to protect, educate Americans

As America’s premier consumer advocacy organization, with a rich history of fighting to make the marketplace fair, safe, and healthy for consumers, NCL is hard at work on the most important issues in food and drug safety and to collaborate on improving consumer education.

In recent years, NCL has been observing the CBD, or cannabidiol, marketplace exploding, with products lining shelves of grocery stores, specialty shops—even gas stations. Products were appearing to make many claims or hint at miracle cures, and most consumers had no idea how or whether the products were being regulated. Who is making sure these tinctures, oils, gummies, and lotions are safe, and do they do what they claim?

This is why last year, NCL joined forces with the Consumer Federation of America and the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, to create a national campaign called Consumers for Safe CBD.

NCL had identified a serious need for greater education among consumers about CBD, and that’s why Consumers for Safe CBD was created. Consumers for Safe CBD aims to help educate the public about the risks related to untested, unapproved CBD products on the market, champion the rights of consumers, and call on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and industry to do better to ensure safety and promote a pathway for new products through clinically tested scientific research.

“Cannabidiol, commonly referred to as CBD, is being used in a growing number of consumer products and is illegally sold in stores and on the Internet,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg. “We’re working to educate consumers and ensure accurate labeling, clear guidelines, and further research to protect against unknown and known risks of CBD products.”

NCL and its partners continue to raise awareness among consumers, policymakers, and regulators about the health risks associated with the unregulated CBD marketplace, in particular with the unproven health claims and often inaccurate labeling of products on the market today. Beyond the known health risks associated with unregulated CBD, there are a number of unscrupulous marketing tactics that prey on unsuspecting consumers. This includes false and dangerous claims that CBD has medical benefits that can prevent and stop the spread of the COVID-19.

By warning consumers about these false claims, participating in media interviews and publishing op-eds across the country, highlighting important research and reports, and sending letters to several retailers, state Attorneys General and Members of Congress, the campaign is working to protect consumers across the country from unapproved and potentially dangerous CBD products.

“We need to better understand the potential health benefits of CBD, but this can only be accomplished through clinical testing and scientifically validated methodologies,” said Greenberg. “We need the FDA to step up for consumers and for the public health.”

The time for action is now. CLICK HERE for more information about the Consumers for Safe CBD effort.

The unsavory side of ‘Food with integrity’

After dozens of outbreaks of foodborne illness over the past four years, Chipotle gave lip service about reforms in their work practices, but the fast-casual restaurant has continued to engage in management practices that lead to abuses of workers that may create food safety risks for consumers. This was the message of a report jointly released by NCL and SEIU 32BJ in February, “The Unsavory Side of ‘Food with Integrity.’”

“The findings of this report call into question the effectiveness of measures that Chipotle put in place to solve their food safety crises of a few years ago,” said Sally Greenberg, NCL executive director. “If Chipotle executive management and the Food Safety Advisory Council are responsible for making sure that this program is implemented effectively to keep the public safe, they have been asleep at the wheel.”

Employees interviewed for the study reported extreme management pressure that led to:
workers being pressured to work while sick; undercooked chicken being served to customers by under-trained grill cooks; and workers being unable to take breaks to wash their hands for hours on end.

In April, NCL welcomed the news that the Department of Justice had imposed on the company the largest criminal fine ever for a food safety case but said the company needs to take additional action and reforms to address the core issues that are driving worker abuses and violations of food safety protocols.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has sickened many people across the United States, essential workers like those at Chipotle and other chains have risked their health and their lives to provide food to their communities. These workers say that long-standing issues at Chipotle are putting them at risk.

“I am glad that the Justice Department has held Chipotle accountable for their actions that have put people at risk,” said Luis Torres, a worker at a Chipotle store in Manhattan. “But even as recent as the beginning of March we had to walk off the job together to fight back against managers pressuring crewmembers to work sick while the Coronavirus crisis was escalating. We’re pressured to make the food faster and aren’t always allowed to take the proper safety precautions. We are speaking out because we just want to stay safe and keep our customers safe.”

The government’s announcement resonates with the report’s findings, including managers pressuring workers to work sick and violations of food safety protocol and Chipotle’s own policies. For example, many workers reported manager pressure not to wash their hands during rush periods so as not to slow the line.

The report also called attention to the ineffective food safety audits, which now must be improved per the deferred prosecution agreement. The food safety audits and Chipotle’s paid sick day policy were part of a set of reforms put in place in 2016 to win back the trust of Chipotle customers following earlier illness outbreaks at Chipotle but according to workers, audits only happen quarterly, meaning that once a store is audited, the manager knows they won’t get audited again until the next quarter.

“We applaud the work of US Attorney’s Office for working with the FDA and for holding Chipotle accountable with a substantial fine,” said Greenberg. “This should be a wake-up call for Chipotle. For years, its management incentive practices have put profits first, endangering the safety and health of customers and workers repeatedly. Now more than ever when food safety is so critical, Chipotle needs a massive overhaul of its management and business practices to put consumer and worker safety first.”

Measures restaurants are taking during the pandemic to reopen

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

As restaurants open across America, we all want to know what the ideal measures are to keep consumers safe. A few days ago, I went to a french restaurant in Old Town, Alexandria for brunch with my family. We weren’t allowed inside, but a hostess stood at the door with the names of customers waiting to be seated. We all practiced social distancing, every customer wore masks, and every restaurant staff member wore gloves.

We were eventually seated on the patio—six-feet apart—and a mobile menu was circulated to avoid person-to-person contact. My brunch experience during COVID-19 is similar to what states around the country are requiring as restaurants reopen.

According to Eater, all 44 states have allowed restaurants to reopen in some capacity. In each state, varying degrees of social distancing measures remain in place for businesses that want to reopen.

Forbes highlights what health experts say about reopening while also maintaining a safe environment for staff and patrons, including:

  • Implement shifts for employees and stick to them. This helps to make exposure clear and limited in case a staff member test positive for COVID-19;
  • place hand sanitizer on each table, at all entrances and exits, and in bathrooms;
  • regular disinfection of high touch surfaces is needed;
  • provide disposable menus or an online menu, touchless ordering through a mobile, app, text, or phone call;
  • and require all customers and employees to wear masks while waiting to be seated and when going to the restroom.

And here are other measures that restaurant industry experts recommend:

  • Implement available screening measures for employees before they start their shift, check their temperatures. If someone has a fever, send them home.
  • Train and communicate new protocols with your employees, it’s important they are briefed on new protocols or there would be a bit of chaos.
  • Buffets and salad bars should use sneeze guards- glass or plastic barriers that shield food- and utensils should be changed and washed frequently.
  • Install plexiglass dividers between booths and hostess stands.
  • Customers should make reservations as many restaurants have stopped serving walk-in customers.
  • Avoid reusable condiments on tables or self-serve stations and instead switch to single-serve packets for items like ketchup.

Restaurants are reopening and we are all eager to head out and socialize with friends and family, but it is paramount that we all adhere to safety protocols put in place by trusted experts to continue to not risk exposure to COVID-19. Please consumers, wear your mask, wash your hands, practice six-foot social distancing, and sanitize your hands. With your efforts, we can help to flatten the curve.

Observing World Food Safety Day: Food safety, foodborne illnesses, and the pandemic.

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

Happy World Food Safety Day! June 7 is a special day designated by the United Nations to draw global attention to the health consequences of contaminated food and water.

The concept of food safety encompasses all practices that are used to keep our food safe and relies on the joint efforts of everyone involved in our food supply. “Everyone” refers to all actors in the food chain, farmers, manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, restaurants, caterers, and many more. Laws and regulations are in place to reduce the risk of contamination under the Food Safety Modernization Act, which is transforming the nation’s food safety system by shifting the focus from responding to foodborne illness to preventing it.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC estimates that each year 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. There are more than 250 types of foodborne diseases, caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Some common foodborne illnesses that are found in our country include:

Norovirus: a contagious virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea. You can get norovirus from:

  • Direct contact with an infected person
  • Consuming contaminated food or water
  • Touching contaminated surfaces, then putting unwashed hands in your mouth

Salmonella: lives in the intestines of people and animals. can come from infection from a variety of sources, including:

  • Eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water
  • Touching infected animals, their feces, or their environment.
  • The bacteria cause about 1.35 million infections, 26,500 hospitalizations, and 240 deaths in the United States every year.

Clostridium perfringens: a spore-forming bacterium that is found in the environment as well as in the intestines of humans and animals. It is also commonly found in raw meat and poultry, beef, poultry, gravies and dried of pre-cooked foods

  • Infections often occur when foods are prepared in large quantities and kept warm for a long time before serving. Outbreaks often happen in institutions, such as hospitals, school cafeterias, prisons, and nursing homes, or at events with catered food.

Campylobacter: the most common bacterial cause of diarrheal illness in the United States.

  • Causes 1.5 million illnesses each year.
  • caused by eating raw or undercooked poultry or consuming something that has come into contact with raw or undercooked poultry, seafood and untreated drinking water.

Staphylococcus (Staph): a gastrointestinal illness caused by eating foods contaminated with these toxins.

  • symptoms include sudden nausea, vomiting and stomach cramps, diarrhea.
  • Not washing hands if food is contaminated with Staph, the bacteria can multiply in the food
  • Foods that are not cooked after handling, such as sliced meats, puddings, pastries and sandwiches are especially risky if contaminated with Staph.

As we note efforts worldwide to ensure that our human food supply is safe, we would be remiss in 2020 if we did not note the increased food safety concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the CDC, there is currently no evidence to support transmission of COVID associated with food. It is important that consumers wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds when handling food. The CDC highlights that, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on many surfaces, there is likely low risk of spread from food products or packaging. The CDC also reinforces the need to avoid cross-contamination of foods in preparing food safely by keeping raw meat separate from other foods, cooking meat to the recommended temperature, which kills harmful bacteria and ensuring that perishable foods are refrigerated.

It is also important to always rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water, including melons and other produce with skins and rinds. Scrub the produce firmly with a clean brush, also remember to clean the lids of canned goods before opening them, says the FDA. Washing produce and cooking meats, fish, and poultry thoroughly is key during this pandemic, especially with so many people preparing their meals at home. Our message to consumers and restaurants and anyone who handles food: as we mark World Food Safety Day, follow these important food safety practices to help prevent foodborne illness and stay healthy and safe during these uncertain times.

Chipotle workers welcome company’s settlement with DOJ but say more safety reforms needed

April 23, 2020

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

NEW YORK–Chipotle workers on Wednesday welcomed the news that the Department of Justice imposed on the company the largest criminal fine ever for a food safety case but said the company needs to make more reforms to address the core issues that are driving worker abuses and violations of food safety protocols.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has sickened many people across the US, essential workers like those at Chipotle and other chains have risked their health and their lives to provide food to their communities. These workers say that long-standing issues at Chipotle are putting them at risk.

In February, the National Consumers League and SEIU 32BJ released a report following an in-depth investigation with dozens of Chipotle workers throughout New York City documenting widespread worker abuses that directly affect customer safety.

“I am glad that the Justice Department has held Chipotle accountable for their actions that have put people at risk,” said Luis Torres, a worker at a Chipotle store in Manhattan. “But even as recent as the beginning of March we had to walk off the job together to fight back against managers pressuring crewmembers to work sick while the Coronavirus crisis was escalating. We’re pressured to make the food faster and aren’t always allowed to take the proper safety precautions. We are speaking out because we just want to stay safe and keep our customers safe.”

The government’s announcement resonates with the report’s findings, including managers pressuring workers to work sick and violations of food safety protocol and Chipotle’s own policies. For example, many workers reported manager pressure not to wash their hands during rush periods so as not to slow the line.

The report also called attention to the ineffective food safety audits, which now must be improved per the deferred prosecution agreement. The food safety audits and Chipotle’s paid sick day policy were part of a set of reforms put in place in 2016 to win back the trust of Chipotle customers following earlier illness outbreaks at Chipotle but according to workers, audits only happen quarterly, meaning that once a store is audited, the manager knows they won’t get audited again until the next quarter.

“We applaud the work of US Attorney’s Office for working with the FDA and for holding Chipotle accountable with a substantial fine,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg. “This should be a wake-up call for Chipotle. For years, its management incentive practices have put profits first, endangering the safety and health of customers and workers repeatedly. Now more than ever when food safety is so critical, Chipotle needs a massive overhaul of its management and business practices to put consumer and worker safety first.”

New York City workers have also reported retaliation from managers if they use their sick days.

“Courageous Chipotle workers have stood up to demand the company live up to its responsibilities to protect the health and safety of customers and employees,” said 32BJ President Kyle Bragg. “The COVID-19 pandemic has made this more important than ever. We are proud to support workers in their fight for food safety, stable jobs with lower turnover and respect for their essential work in the community.”

Workers, 32BJ and the NCL are demanding Chipotle fundamentally reform their policies to promote worker and consumer safety and ensure that workers have a real voice on the job through their own organization. When workers have the power to protect themselves, the public is better protected as well.

###

About 32BJ SEIU

With 175,000 members in 11 states, including 85,000 in New York, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service workers union in the country.

About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

Safe takeout options under coronavirus

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

The way we get food now has totally changed due to the Covid-19 virus. Most us around the nation no longer go to our favorite bar or restaurant or stop at the local coffee shop for a bite to eat or to socialize and have a drink. The mandatory closure shutdown of restaurants with the exception of takeout or delivery is our only option of enjoying a meal not cooked at home. Beyond that, we may ask the questions: first is it safe? Second: is it ethical to potentially expose a delivery worker to what we are all trying to avoid the risk of Covid-19?

The answer to the first question is yes, with some caveats. Currently food is not associated with the transmission of Covid-19, according to the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration. However, Vox reports that there is growing evidence of fecal/oral transmission, which means you can ingest the virus shed in feces through inadequate handwashing or contaminated food and water. Therefore, handlers of food who carry the virus can spread the virus to food items. In theory, all restaurants have to follow food safety rules, and there are extra measures that have been put in place due to Covid-19. However, we have seen Chipotle and other restaurants spread infections by poor food handling.

The second question is complicated, but here are some thoughts. Currently delivery workers are in the middle of a pandemic but still have to work to support their families and pay bills. Eater suggests that if customers forego take-out food, delivery workers and restaurants struggling to provide during the crisis could be put out of business.

We recommend ordering take-away food from your favorite restaurants and, even better, support them by buying gift cards for post-pandemic future meals when restaurants re-open.

Your first option is to is use the in-house restaurant delivery option, since third-party apps take commission fees, which reduce the profit for restaurants. Here are some apps that are taking the necessary measures in protecting their workers and helping out the restaurant industry.

  • UberEats is working to provide drivers with disinfectant. With limited supplies they are working with suppliers to source as much as possible. Any delivery worker who is diagnosed with Covid-19 or is individually asked to self-isolate by a public health authority will receive financial assistance for up to 14 days. UberEats customers have the option to choose how they would like their orders delivered, including selecting “leave at door” during checkout. UberEats has also waived the delivery fee for more than 100,000 independent restaurants across the USA and Canada.
  • Postmates launched the Postmates Fleet Relief Fund to help fleet workers cover medical expenses related to Covid-19, regardless of diagnosis. Active members of the fleet who receive a positive diagnosis for Covid-19 or who are required to self-quarantine based on infection may be eligible to access additional funds to offset up to two weeks of lost income while they recover. Postmates has also introduced non-contact deliveries, which allows distancing between customers and delivery workers. Postmates will also waive commission fees for businesses in the San Francisco Bay area.
  • DoorDash (also owns Caviar) is providing financial assistance to eligible delivery workers and Caviar couriers who are diagnosed with Covid-19 or quarantined. DoorDash is consulting with public health officials and working with restaurants to enhance their food preparation protocols. The default delivery method has been changed to the non-contact option to minimize contact between the delivery workers and customers. All new and existing DoorDash partner restaurants will receive commission relief and marketing support.
  • Grubhub is offering a one-time pay adjustment to help with medical expenses and loss of income if a driver tests positive with Covid-19. Grubhub will also support drivers who have been ordered by a public health authority or licensed medical personnel to self-isolate due to a risk of spreading Covid-19, and if a driver’s account has been individually restricted as a result of information provided to Grubhub by a public health authority regarding the risk of spreading Covid-19. Grubhub has also introduced contact-free delivery, which allows customers to request having their delivery left at the front door to avoid less contact.
  • On March 9, Instacart introduced a new sick pay policy that all part-time employees including in-store shoppers now have access to sick pay, an accrued benefit that can be used as paid time off for absences from work due to illness or injury. This pay accrual will be backdated from the start of the year for all in-store shoppers. Instacart is also offering 14 days of pay for any part-time employee and full-service shoppers who are diagnosed with Covid-19 or are under mandatory isolation or quarantine directed by local, state, or public health authority. This assist will be available for 30 days. Instacart has also introduced “Leave at my Door Delivery” to all customers across North America.

It is important that we minimize contact with others since daily things are changing in relation to Covid-19. However, delivery services are really stepping up to keep customers safe and, for that, we should all be grateful. Remember to support your local restaurants by requesting non-contact delivery!

 

Coronavirus and food safety: What you need to know

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

Perhaps some of the only good news about the Covid-19 is that food is not the primary way that the virus can be spread. According to Harvard Medical School, “We are still learning about transmission of COVID-19. It’s not clear if this is possible, but if so, it would be more likely to be the exception than the rule. That said, COVID-19 and other coronaviruses have been detected in the stool of certain patients, so we currently cannot rule out the possibility of occasional transmission from infected food handlers. The virus would likely be killed by cooking.”

Great, but not all foods can or are intended to be cooked – think of deli meats, cole slaw, potato salad, cheeses, salads, fresh fruits and vegetables, breads, pastry, butter, cream cheese; so if the mainstay of a deli or restaurant is “fresh” foods, spreading the virus is a real threat if the right precautions are taken.

And COVID-19 has made us all keenly aware of the importance of wiping surfaces and washing hands frequently, especially when handling food. We also know that COVID-19 can’t typically be transmitted from food or from food packaging. But we do have suggestions.

Food safety measures one should take:

  • Wash your hands the right way: Use plain soap and water- skip the antibacterial soap, scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails for about 20 seconds, if you need to time yourself sing the chorus of your favorite song twice. Rinse your hands, and then dry them with a clean towel. Remember to wash your hands often especially since COVID-19 lives on surfaces for an extended period.
  • Wash surfaces and utensils after each use: Wash cutting boards, utensils countertops with hot, soapy water, especially if you had raw meat, seafood, poultry or eggs on these surfaces. Don’t cross contaminate!
  • Remember it is very important to wash your dishcloths in a hot cycle of your washing machine, sometimes we forget this key element to food safety.
  • Learn more from FoodSafety.gov.

Food safety is paramount in our day-to-day lives – it’s so important that we take the necessary steps not to expose ourselves – whether eating in a restaurant or cooking at home, to COVID-19. Remember eat healthy, nutritious foods and take all the steps needed in preparing a safe meal for you and your family.

New study says Chipotle management presses workers to work sick and skip food safety practices, creating health risks for consumers

February 6, 2020

The Unsavory side of ‘Food with Integrity.’ ” report details management practices that lead to worker abuses and call into question protocols Chipotle put in place after recent food safety crises

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

New York — After dozens of outbreaks of foodborne illness incidents over the past four years, Chipotle gave lip service to reforms in their work practices, but the fast-casual restaurant has continued to engage in management practices that lead to abuses of workers that may create food safety risks for consumers, a new study says.

Scores of employees interviewed for the study reported management pressure to work fast without following proper food safety procedures, such as:

  • One worker being pressured to work while sick, even after the worker vomited partway into his shift;
  • Undercooked chicken being served to a customer because the grill cookout in place had not been properly trained;
  • Workers pressured to work so fast that during lunch and dinner rushes, they often flipped over  chopping boards used to cut raw meat, and reused the boards without washing them;
  • One worker who cooked food had to clean feces off the floor or ceiling of a bathroom multiple times without hazmat suit or adequate protection equipment;
  • Pressure to work without stopping, with no time left to wash their hands for hours on end.

In the report, “The Unsavory Side of ‘Food with Integrity,'” workers told researchers that their managers often knew when supposedly independent audits were coming because other managers or field leaders who have undergone inspection often tip them off. Workers reported that managers relax rules outside of inspection periods and tightened up adherence to food safety protocols when inspections are imminent.

“The findings of this report call into question the effectiveness of measures that Chipotle put in place to solve their food safety crises of a few years ago,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, which co-authored the report. “If Chipotle executive management and the Food Safety Advisory Council are responsible for making sure that this program is implemented effectively to keep the public safe, they have been asleep at the wheel.”

The National Consumers League, America’s pioneering consumer advocacy organization which has been representing consumers and workers on marketplace and workplace issues since their founding in 1899, undertook the study after SEIU Local 32BJ brought the organization information from field organizers about what were learning about practices that could affect consumer food safety from Chipotle workers they were supporting in their organizing efforts.

Organizers and researchers spoke to hundreds of workers, then undertook formal interviews with 47 workers at 25 stores in New York City. These interviews and statements form the basis of the report, which also included analysis of a variety of corporate filings, press reports, and other publicly available documents.

“We chose to blow the whistle on these practices and abuses because our Chipotle managers did not listen to us,” Jeremy Espinal, a Chipotle worker, said. “It’s a pressure-packed workplace where supervisors intimidate you and retaliate against you.”

“I am speaking out because I want to make Chipotle a better place to work and a better place for customers to eat,” Jahaira Garcia, another Chipotle worker, said. “This job is how I support myself, how I help my father out with expenses at home and how I am able to partly pay for my school fees.”

32BJ President Kyle Bragg thanked the National Consumers League for working with the union and thanked the workers for their courage.

“I believe that these workers are Chipotle’s best assets,” Bragg said. “They can put the integrity back into ‘food with integrity.’ Give them a voice on the job and they will help Chipotle achieve the lofty ideals of its marketing.”

Report findings include:

  • Managerial pay incentives that promote cutting food safety corners:  managers can earn up to an additional 25% of base pay by meeting performance goals that include reducing labor costs, creating a highly pressurized work environment. This bonus program may incentivize managers to meet productivity goals by cutting corners on food safety or by violating worker protection laws.
  • Ineffective store audits: Worker interviews revealed that general managers frequently know when supposedly independent audits are coming because other managers or field leaders who have been inspected often tip them off. Workers reported that managers have relaxed rules following outside of inspection periods and tightened up adherence to food safety protocols when an audit is imminent.
  • Pressure to work sick: New York-based workers reported that managers have pressured crew members to work while sick or retaliated against workers for taking paid sick leave.
  • Minimal training: Despite the substantial skills needed to safely prepare Chipotle’s fresh food menu, many new hires receive minimal training and “learn as they go” from co-workers who may not have received much training themselves.

“As chairman of the New York City Council Public Health Committee, this is deeply troubling to me,” said New York Councilmember Mark Levine. “Risk of contagion should not be aggravated by an aggressive incentive structure that encourages managers to abuse workers and cut food safety corners. The public needs to know more and Chipotle needs to change their policies. That is why I am calling for a public hearing in the Council. I encourage Chipotle workers and consumers to come forward to discuss these issues. I also invite the company to be there to engage in this conversation.”

Nick Freudenberg, distinguished professor of Public Health at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy and Director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, discussed Chipotle’s history of food borne disease outbreaks.

In 2015 and 2016, Chipotle was rocked by a series of food safety crises that sickened hundreds of customers across the country and included exposure to virulent pathogens like E. coli, salmonella, and norovirus, resulting in vomiting, pain, and in some cases hospitalizations. Despite claiming major food safety reforms instituted in 2016 to recapture consumer confidence, the company continued to have food-borne illness problems in 2017 and 2018, including an Ohio outbreak in which 647 people were sickened.

Despite Chipotle implementing an “enhanced food safety program” in 2016, the City’s Department of Health found 260 critical violations at 74 out of 84 restaurants from 2017 to 2019. Critical violations are those most likely to pose “a substantial risk to the public’s health” and lead to food-borne illness. The critical violation examples found by health inspectors include food left at dangerous temperatures that allow for the growth of pathogens, practices that allow for the contamination of ready-to-eat foods, evidence of various pests, and stores supervised by managers without a certificate in food protection. Just two weeks ago, the City cited a Chipotle restaurant where they found a crewmember working while “ill with a disease transmissible by food or [an] exposed infected cut or burn on [their] hand”.

Worker advocates and community groups were surprised by the findings and expressed support for Chipotle workers:

“Chipotle has not only acted duplicitously—championing a mission of integrity and freshness in public while speeding up production and cutting corners behind the counter—the company has created added risks for workers and consumers in the pursuit of profits,” said Ana Maria Archila of the Center for Popular Democracy. “Outlined in this report are issues that range from cautionary to alarming. Will Chipotle wait for another outbreak before they take corrective action—or will they take action ‘with integrity’ now to reduce potential harm?”

“This report is vital to understanding that the exploitation of workers in the food industry does not just impact workers and their families, it impacts everyone, including consumers,” Suzanne Adely of the Food Chain Workers Alliance said. “Chipotle and all food service workers deserve fair working conditions. Denying them basic, humane rights like sick days, proper healthy and safe working spaces, cannot be justified. Exploiting food workers for profit does not only harm workers and their families, it harms everyone, including consumers.”

“Chipotle is another example of worker safety and consumer safety being undermined together,” said Charlene Obernauer of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH). “Chipotle has a legal responsibility to provide a safe and healthy workplace and they need to take the appropriate steps to make this possible.”

“This report details how Chipotle’s low-road labor standards and incentives for managers to cut corners are endangering the dining public,” said Paul Sonn, State Policy Program Director for the National Employment Law Project. “Chipotle needs to recognize that investing in its workforce with stable, quality jobs is essential for delivering a safe and healthy dining experience for its customers.”

“We are deeply concerned with the workplace issues, especially that of forced arbitration described by Chipotle workers in this study,” Deborah Axt of Make the Road said. “We stand with Chipotle workers, the majority of whom are workers of color and many of whom are from communities like the ones our members are from, in calling for company-wide reforms and a commitment to invest in a stable workforce.”

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About 32BJ SEIU

With 175,000 members in 11 states, including 85,000 in New York, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service workers union in the country.

About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.