(Reuters) - Chipotle Mexican Grill has retained two leading food safety experts - including a critic of the burrito chain's early response to disease outbreaks last year - as it redoubles its efforts to guard against health scares.
David Acheson, a former official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was brought on as an adviser, Chipotle told Reuters.
The company also confirmed it is working with David Theno, a food safety consultant and former Jack in the Box executive who is credited with fixing food safety at the fast-food chain following a deadly E. coli outbreak in the 1990s.
The two are respected among food safety experts, and their involvement may signal an expansion in Chipotle's reforms. But the scope is not yet clear.
Spokesman Chris Arnold confirmed the consultants were retained last year but would not say when or detail their duties. As recently as early December, Acheson was sharply critical of the company's initial response to the outbreaks.
In March, the company announced it had hired James Marsden, a former meat science professor at Kansas State University, as executive director of food safety. Arnold said Marsden would have "primary responsibility for our food safety programs."
Expanding its complement of food safety experts is part of Chipotle's effort to rebound from a spate of disease outbreaks - including E. coli, salmonella and norovirus - last year that crushed sales, repulsed customers and slashed $6 billion off its market valuation.
Chipotle's ability to win back diners is vital to reviving sales and is expected to be a key topic at the company’s annual meeting on Wednesday.
"We have committed to establishing Chipotle as an industry leader in food safety, and we have assembled an extremely capable team to help us achieve that goal," Arnold told Reuters.
Chipotle declined to make members of the team available for interviews.
"If I had to put together a dream team to fix something, you could do a lot worse,” said Don Schaffner, a food science professor at Rutgers University. But, he added: "I’ve begun to wonder a little bit about too many cooks. Each of those guys is going to have a perspective on what to do to fix the problem."
Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, said he expected the group's focus "would likely be more on food safety preventive controls and less on food testing."
Chipotle's initial response emphasized testing ingredients for pathogens with the goal of stopping any source of illness from getting into its restaurants. The company touted a testing regime set up by another consultant, Mansour Samadpour, chief executive of IEH Laboratories & Consulting Group.
Acheson criticized the Chipotle for relying too heavily on that one approach. "I'm not a believer that you can test your way to safety,” he told Reuters in early December.
At the time, he said the focus should be on improving food sourcing and handling practices, including how suppliers are approved, “how they are leveraged in terms of training, storing, handling, and preparing of food."
Arnold said Chipotle continues to work with the IEH testing firm. Its more recent changes have focused on food preparation. For instance, Chipotle said on its latest earnings call that it had started blanching bell peppers in an effort to kill germs.
The chain also has cut some small suppliers. Kenter Canyon Farms said it lost business providing oregano to Chipotle through a third-party distributor.
“When that whole scandal happened with the E. coli, when they revamped their food safety. They cut ties with a lot of growers,” said Mark Lopez, sales director for the farm.
Chipotle also began buying more red onions from Oregon-based River Point Farms, which said it is the country’s largest onion supplier, a source involved in the situation said.
The goal was to make it easier for Chipotle to trace the origins of the products, according to the source, who did not want to be identified. River Point declined to comment.
Chipotle's Arnold said the chain would continue to support smaller farms, and has committed to spending $10 million to help them meet its standards. But he said the company has noted that it may be difficult for "some of our smaller suppliers to meet our heightened food safety standards."
Big chains - including Yum Brands Inc <YUM.N>, the parent of Taco Bell and KFC, and McDonald's Corp - tend to work with a small number of large suppliers, which often have more resources and controls.