In October 2015, an e. coli struck the Pacific Northwest. It didn’t take long to identify a number of Chipotle Mexican Grills as the culprits. Once the company knew the outbreak originated in its restaurants, Chipotle closed more than 40 stores in the area in an attempt to contain it.
It might sound like the end of it, but it was only the beginning. The saga that followed is now largely forgotten, but it is worth revisiting for its illuminating parallels to the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Considering the two together indicates something about the behavior of large institutions and tightly trained experts in times of crisis: Under pressure, charged with a single purpose and under intense public scrutiny, they must do Something. Unfortunately, the result is often as much a question of panic and performance as of expertise.
Some of the similarities between these two seizures are superficial. For example, both the e. coli and the first confirmed case of COVID-19 occurred in Washington state, and in each case, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has come under fire for their initial announcement of the problem. But other similarities, which I noticed thanks to this 2016 deep dive, “Chipotle eats himself”, by Austin Carr for Fast business, are more instructive for exploring the risks of a narrow expertise.
Both cases saw early confusion as to the source of the danger. Speculation abounded about the origin of the new coronavirus last year, and this question remains largely unanswered. Chipotle stores were ordered to urgently throw out all of the cilantro, then were told hours later that it was a false alarm. In fact, these were just false alarms: Although Chipotle overhauled its sourcing and preparation methods, it did so without ever actually identifying the ingredient that caused the first outbreak. These knowledge gaps have fueled conspiracy theories on COVID and Chipotle, with the Chinese military and Monsanto or another dark “Big Food” player being touted as the respective villains of the crises.
Testing debacles are also a common thread. Testing shortages have been a major concern in the first six months of COVID-19, and our home testing options always lagging behind those of other nations, like UK. At Chipotle, there was confusion over what was called “high-resolution testing,” a method of identifying whether food may contain dangerous pathogens. Chipotle chose the less informative of the two test options, and a food safety expert the company hired believed none of its co-CEOs understood the difference between the two tests – or even what the tests actually were. at high resolution.
More important than these, however, were the economic and personal effects as each response to the crisis unfolded. While there is no evidence that locally produced food on small farms has anything to do with any of the outbreaks, Chipotle has cut back on purchases from its vaunted small farming partners to centralize supply. food so that any future outbreaks can be more easily traced. During the pandemic, too, small businesses bore the brunt of the pain. Walmart earned the “essential” designation as many smaller stores were forced to shut down completely.
Chipotle has also responded by instituting draconian food safety checklists. Company management has intimidated restaurant teams about compliance, declining morale and, with it, enthusiasm for necessary safety measures. The new rules left little room for individual judgment, discretion or risk assessment, seeing them not as vital analytical tools but as evidence of insufficient commitment to safety. Low-level retail and food service workers have also been given enormous responsibilities and very little leeway to exercise caution in dealing with COVID-19.
The question is Why This is how expert-led crisis responses work. Why does our approach to security favor grandeur, standardization and centralization? Why are top-down directives so often rigid, even when based on little or not certain knowledge of the current crisis?
One theory of the public health response to the pandemic, common in conservative social and religious commentaries on the pandemic, is that physical health has become the consumer priority of our society. “Because we value health above all, we subordinate the spiritual to the temporal”, Matthew Schmitz wrote in First things in March 2020. “As important as health is, things start to look strange when valued above all else.” Schmitz argued that the hasty sorting of companies into essential and non-essential categories was not a call for high-pressure technocratic judgment, but a kind of metaphysical argument.
This theory received a big boost when, following protests over the murder of George Floyd last summer, more than 1,000 public health experts argued that mass protests during the pandemic were justifiable because racism was also an urgent public health problem. And around the same time, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio insisted to a Jewish media outlet that the fight against racism was “not the same issue as the naturally wronged shop owner or the devout religious person who wants to return to services.” Protests would be allowed, he said, while much smaller religious gatherings would not.
Perhaps, as Schmitz and other conservatives accused, these statements showed that our society in general and public health experts in particular lack spirituality or a sense of transcendence. Perhaps the rigid, large-scale rules of pandemics were the logical result of a belief in nothing beyond this physical life.
But does it really matter? The Chipotle comparison suggests another explanation. There the stakes were much lower and less controversial – no one died from Chipotle’s tainted food, and it’s hard to read metaphysical arguments in burritos. Yet in both crises, leaders with narrow expertise, operating under intense pressure, focused on solving the big problem in their own wheelhouse to the detriment of everything else. Panicked and feeling the need to perform, they made the law in the only area they knew well, unaware or unable to adapt to the negative externalities that the law would have.
And then they went a little further than what might have been immediately necessary, too, using the fear and uncertainty of the moment to push through changes that would not normally have been acceptable. In Chipotle, many food security measures after the epidemic Stay in place to this day, a “new normal” for a chain that once avoided central preparation and embraced fresh, raw ingredients. It remains to be seen what pandemic security measures will remain in place after COVID-19 becomes rampant.
Jim Marsden, a Kansas State University meat scientist and Chipotle’s top food safety expert, is paraphrased in the Fast business the story as saying that “not knowing the exact cause of the E. coli outbreak meant the company had a chance to fix everything.” To conservative ears, this may sound eerily like left-wing social engineering – “Never let a crisis go to waste” – but in this context, of course, it isn’t. It’s just narrow expertise at work.
This explanation means that the public health response to the pandemic, while blatantly flawed, was not about spiritual poverty or political radicalism. And that means the answer to the inflexible and sweeping statements of narrow expertise is not the abandonment of liberalism or even more radical political change. It’s a boring, technocratic thing.
This could include reforming and expanding the education and training that public health and safety experts receive. This could mean making their curriculum more interdisciplinary, teaching them to think and talk about tradeoffs and risk assessments in ways that do not minimize the current crisis, but inform different approaches and allow different disciplines to work together.
Over the past year and a half, public health experts have fulfilled their mandate, and they have generally done as well as you might expect in an incredibly difficult time. But perhaps it is time to rethink this mandate itself. Perhaps it is time to favor a broader, and therefore more human, style of expertise.