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Is Chipotle a Victim of Corporate Sabotage?

Food
Is Chipotle a Victim of Corporate Sabotage?

I’m fascinated by reports of Chipotle’s ongoing problems with foodborne illness.

  • The main interest of the press in these episodes is their effect on Chipotle’s stock prices.

  • The outbreaks have been linked to a bunch of different pathogens: E. coli O157:H7, E. coli STEC 026, Salmonella, norovirus, and, possibly, hepatitis A. This means they are due to different causes at different outlets.

  • The food, foods or individuals responsible for these outbreaks are uncertain, making them hard to know how to prevent.

  • Hence: conspiracy theories.

The Outbreaks

The most recent Center for Disease Control report (Dec. 21) counts 53 cases of E. coli 026 from nine states, with 20 hospitalizations.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports (Dec. 22) that there are five more recent cases of illness caused by a different type of E. coli 026 among people eating at Chipotle.

Food Safety News summarizes the previous Chipotle outbreaks.

  • Seattle: July 2015, 5 people sick from E. coli O157:H7, from unknown food source.

  • Minnesota: August and September 2015, 64 people sick from Salmonella Newport (tomatoes?).

  • Boston: December 2015, at least 136 people sick from norovirus.

The Consequences

  • Stock prices are down 30 percent from a high of $757.77 in August.

The Conspiracy Theory

The title says it all: ANALYSIS: Chipotle is a victim of corporate sabotage… biotech industry food terrorists are planting e.coli in retaliation for restaurant’s anti-GMO menu.

I don’t think so.

You don’t need conspiracy theories to explain poorly designed and executed food safety procedures.

Photo credit: Michael Saechang / Flickr, Creative Commons

What is to be Done?

The New York Times attributes the inability to identify the food source to Chipotle’s record-keeping:

One of the challenges here has been that we have been able to identify the restaurants where people ate, but because of the way Chipotle does its record-keeping, we have been unable to figure out what food is in common across all those restaurants,” said Dr. Ian Williams, chief of the outbreak response and prevention branch of the CDC [Center for Disease Control].

That, at least, should be an easy fix.

For the rest, Chipotle has initiated a new food safety program, and has recruited a leading food safety expert, Mansour Samadpour, to set it up. I met Samadpour at Earthbound Farms when he was helping that company prevent further problems after the spinach outbreak of 2006. He knows what he his doing.

Chipotle needs to follow his advice—in letter and in spirit.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler advises Chipotle to follow a 12-step program to create an effective culture of food safety from top down and bottom up within the company. For example, he advises the company’s CEO, Steve Ells, to say:

  • It is time to have a culture of food safety added to the “integrity” of the food. I have now learned that bacteria and viruses do not care a whit if my food’s ingredients are organic, sustainable, non-GMO and humanely raised.

  • I am going to hire a vice-president of food safety. That person will report directly to me and to the board of directors. Like Dave Theno being brought in to address the Jack-in-the-Box crisis of 1993, this person will have the resources and access to decision makers to create a culture of food safety from the top down.

  • The company’s new mantra—“Safe Food with Integrity”—will be completely transparent and shared with all—including our competitors.

Will Ells take his advice? I hope so.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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