THE CHIPOTLE CRISIS: How social media spread E. coli nearly as fast as Chipotle

close up photo of a burrito

Chipotle is a successful national chain with a menu of items ranging from burritos to bowls. The popularity of Chipotle has grown both from its successful ads as well as its own customers. Since its founding in 1993, Chipotle has grown to 2,966 national locations and 128 local farms and plants to package and store products. One facility, however, was selling meat contaminated with a strain of E. coli and was distributed and sold to various stores. This led to an outbreak that has stained Chipotle’s reputation since.

The Crisis Itself

Escherichia coli (Ecoli) bacteria normally live in the intestines of healthy people and animals. However, certain strains of E. coli can prove deadly and make certain individuals sick. Below is more information on the details and information of the crisis:


  • October 2015 initiated the start of the E. coli outbreak.
  • The outbreak spread to over 13 states in just 3 months
  • 60 ill patrons reported out of these locations
  • 22 victims were hospitalized
  • Chipotle closes 43 stores in wake of the outbreak
  • Suffered an 11.1% drop in their shares

The Social Media Effect

Not only did the physical presence of Chipotle diminish, but so did its presence online. The internet was quick to react to the company’s crisis and the effects of the outbreak.

More and more social media users were reacting to news related to the crisis so much that #ecolibowl became a trending hashtag in December of 2015. Other social media sites where the company was getting negative publicity included Facebook, Instagram, and Reddit.

Not only was the reach of social media one of the reasons for its effectiveness, but the speed and accessibility of it all. Nearly anyone can access and use these sites and react in real-time. This allows multiple opinions and reactions to spread on any topic made public. This negatively affected the company because everyone had a negative reaction to the situation Chipotle was put in.

How did Chipotle find a solution?

Chipotle was in a crisis and needed to act fast. The company decided that to first solve their problem, they needed to admit their mistakes. Chipotle not only openly apologized to those affected but also made company changes to prevent future outbreaks as well. Below is the comprehensive food safety plan endorsed by their founder. The full plan and response can be seen here.

This plan included $25 million dollars in plans to enhance safety and help farms and stores decrease the risk of similar outbreaks. The company also took to social media and national advertisements to communicate to the public their efforts.

Their plan has since proved successful and drove their stocks and publicity back up a considerable amount overall. However, the legacy of E. coli and Chipotle will forever be embedded because of the power of the internet. Social media’s role in modern crisis management will always play an important role, and Chipotle is a leading example of its lasting effects.

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