Chipotle’s weasel words are sickening

Image: Today Show

Chipotle Mexican Grill’s CEO Steve Ells is “deeply sorry” after 141 of his customers in Boston College contracted Norovirus. This comes in the wake of virus outbreaks in nine other states over the past year. The restaurant chain has deployed a team of copywriters to solve the problem. Their efforts on the company’s website gave me a stomachache.

Chipotle.com now features OUR COMMITMENT TO FOOD SAFETY. If weasel words caused contagious illnesses, the CDC would need to shut down and sanitize Chipotle’s web presence. Take a look at the overheated prose that the chain hopes will solve its image problem. Weasel words and other questionable text shown in bold italic; my comments in brackets.

Food safety has always been one of our highest priorities. [Great to know. Just for our reference, where does that rank versus profit and food quality?]

In the wake of recent food safety-related incidents at a number of Chipotle restaurants, we have taken aggressive actions to implement pioneering food safety practices. We have carefully examined our operations—from the farms that produce our ingredients, to the partners that deliver them to our restaurants, to the cooking techniques used by our restaurant crews—and determined the steps necessary to make the food served at Chipotle as safe as possible[What exactly is the difference between a “safety related incident” and a contagious food-borne virus? It takes a team lawyers and PR people collaborating furiously to generate wording like that. But the team has aggressively deployed a pioneering bevy of adverbs and adjectives to fix the image problem.]

To accomplish this goal, we have partnered with Seattle-based IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group, a preeminent food safety testing and consulting company. . . .The following are the key components of the updated program that we have developed through the comprehensive assessment undertaken in partnership with Dr. Samadpour and his team at IEH. [How can you measure if a consultant is preeminent or an assessment is comprehensive? Intensifiers without metrics are just word inflation.]

SAFETY TESTING OF INGREDIENTS. We are partnering with many of our suppliers to enhance our food safety programs by implementing what is called a “high-resolution” approach. High resolution testing involves a series of DNA-based tests performed frequently on small batches of ingredients to help ensure the quality and safety of ingredients before they are shipped to restaurants. This testing program goes above and beyond mandatory state and federal food safety requirements. [Bring on the verbs. Instead of partnering, enhancing, implementing, and “helping” ensure safety, Chipotle could just say “We’re testing food more frequently than we have to.” “Above and beyond” is a weasel cliche — it’s always a sign of trouble.]

INGREDIENT HANDLING & PREPARATION. We conducted a thorough review of each ingredient we serve and how it is handled in our restaurants. Through this review, we identified the risks associated with each ingredient and determined the optimal food safety practice for that ingredient. Our restaurant teams are currently in the process of implementing these changes, such as blanching many fresh produce items—submerging them in boiling water for 3-5 seconds—to help sanitize these ingredients before being prepared. [This sounds useful, but I wonder how long the process of implementing will take.]

Take, for example, the way we used to make our tomato salsa . . . [This is followed by a detailed description that’s actually reassuring.]

CREW EDUCATION AND TRAINING. Basic food safety practices have always been central to the way we train our restaurant crews. We have worked with IEH to enhance our training processes at all levels, and we are developing rigorous in-restaurant protocols to ensure that our teams understand and implement our updated food safety practices. [If food safety has been central, why did 200 people get sick? Luckily, “rigorous protocols” sound pretty impressive.]

AUDITS & ASSESSMENTS. All of the changes outlined above, in addition to our existing food safety program, will now be verified on a more frequent basis than before. We have implemented a robust program for ensuring that our restaurants meet our standards, using both internal and 3rd-party assessments . . . [Beware the passive voice. Who’s verifying? I hope it’s not “by zombies.”]

We apologize to those that have been affected by this situation. It is our greatest priority to maintain our customers’ confidence and loyalty in eating at Chipotle. [Now we get the answer to the question at the top. Customer loyalty is the top priority, while food safety, “one of the highest priorities,” comes a bit further down.]

For more information about the recent incidents and answers to frequently asked questions, visit our Food Safety Update page. [. . . where you can find more qualified and timely evasions.]

Every company under attack defends itself with inflated weasel words. See through them. Here’s a plain language translation:

We screwed up and a lot of people got sick. Unless we get ahead of this, our stock is hosed. With the combination of our fresh ingredients and rapid expansion, food safety got away with us. Unfortunately, changing procedures across a whole chain of restaurants with entry-level employees who change jobs every 3 months is sort of difficult and time-consuming. Even so, we’re going to try. In the meantime, please pay attention to our CEO’s heartfelt apology, wash your hands, and trust us . . . we’re working on it.

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  1. This is one time where I feel that your version wasn’t better. I do think that they need to provide more assurances than, “trust us… we’re working on it” with a description of steps that they’re taking to address the problem. Their original version, in all its bullshit glory, at least did that.

    1. I think part of your crisis comms process is to write out the extreme statement like Josh’s and ask if that’s what people are going to hear when we say X — and revising to take out as much of the weasel as you can.

      I would have erased every single word about customer safety as a high priority — I mean, people have gotten sick, and in more than one way (E coli and norovirus). Stating anything about safety is undercut by the brute facts, and a reader is immediately going to call “bullshit.” I’d go directly to what they are doing to fix the problem: “Customers have been getting sick after eating in our restaurants. Our business is based on providing customers with the highest-quality fresh food safely, and we apologize for failing to deliver on that promise. Here is what we are doing to solve this fix our processes and regain your trust.”

      [Itemize actions]