Food Service Case Study: Chipotle's Food Traceability Program

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

This lesson will examine Chipotle's Food Traceability Program, which was put in place to advance the restaurant's commitment to food safety. It will analyze the need for this program, its benefits, and its relationship with Chipotle's mission of Food With Integrity.

Food With Integrity

Imagine walking into the grocery store, heading over to the dairy case, and taking out your phone. On the phone is an application that allows you to scan the cheese and see the journey it made along the supply chain, from the farm to the store shelf in front of you.

Food traceability can help identify food safety problems quickly.
Food traceability can help identify food safety problems.

For many restaurants and food providers, a form of this type of information is becoming standard practice. As the world evolves and global food supply chains become more complex and varied, being able to trace food products from where they originated to our own dinner plates is becoming much more important.

A Primer on Food Traceability

Food traceability practices are being implemented at many restaurants, grocers, and other food providers, for a variety of reasons and applications:

  • To improve food safety
  • To prevent public health crises
  • To assist in food recalls
  • To understand product origins and ingredients

Food traceability refers to the ability to track any food or food product through the various stages of production, processing, and distribution to retail locations or restaurants. A food tracing system should be able to identify where the product has come from and where it's going, serving as an identifier of producers, suppliers, distributors, and buyers.

For proper traceability practices, tracing records should include:

1. Names and addresses of producers and suppliers

2. Names and addresses of buyers (such as restaurants or grocers)

3. What products were supplied or received, as well as volume and quantity

4. The dates and times of any transactions

5. Identification markings such as serialized numbers, batch or lot numbers, or other identifying details

One restaurant that has embraced food traceability measures is quick-service Mexican restaurant chain Chipotle, where diners can build their own tacos and burritos.

Chipotle's Commitment

Following a food safety concern in 2005, when several hundred customers of Chipotle restaurants fell ill due to food safety failures, Chipotle management was faced with not only a crisis of food, but a public outcry for improved food safety practices. The incidents sparked a criminal investigation initiated by the Justice Department and a blow to Chipotle's stock prices and sales.

Chipotle founder Steve Ells worked to advance his restaurant's commitment to food safety, he said, including stricter restaurant inspections and a traceability program that tracks Chipotle ingredients through the supply system.

In implementing a food traceability program, Chipotle partnered with FoodLogiQ, using GS1 Standards and a Global Trade Item Number, which enables barcode and numbering systems to share standardized product information at every point of the supply chain. GS1 standards are unique identifiers such as numbers and barcodes to identify products. Suppliers are required to use these numbered labels for packaging and shipping that contain product names, batch/lot numbers, and pack date and/or use-by date. Packages are scanned at every point in the journey - much like packages with tracking capabilities that are sent via the United States Postal Service - and these scans are linked into a central system used by Chipotle and all its suppliers.

Steps in Chipotle's traceability system include:

  • Registering companies in Chipotle's database
  • Entering GS1 numbers and other company information
  • Creating location records for each facility or farm relevant to Chipotle's food products
  • Establishing product records for each item received by Chipotle
  • Uploading product documents including legal, insurance, and specification requirements
  • Completing sustainability surveys for product categories

On its website, Chipotle describes its traceability program as a computerized system that tracks ingredients, starting 'at the farm, continuing through our distribution centers, and ending in our restaurants.' The traceability program uses laser-scanned barcodes that allow employees to track each item to determine its origin and pinpoint individual shipments along their journey to the restaurant.

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