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Fast Food

Is Chipotle really America's 'emotionally abusive boyfriend?'

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Chipotle has been the brunt of jokes and hit by lawsuits, but some experts are predicting positive growth figures as early as the end of the year. (AP)

On Sunday, TV host and comedian John Oliver skewered Chipotle over its food safety problems.

The host of HBO's "Last Week Tonight," called Chipotle "America's preferred over-the-counter laxative." 

He ran down a list of Chipotle's problems over the past months, including E. Coli, salmonella and norovirus outbreaks.  He also had a mock promo showing mice scurrying over food and cited a fake report about a live bird living in a Florida Chipotle as recently as January.

About America's continued love of the chain, Oliver quips:

"They know it's bad and they want it even more: Chipotle is now officially America's emotionally abusive boyfriend." 

"That's harsh," Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, a Chicago-based food research firm said about Oliver's comment.  "They shouldn’t be left off the hook, but they deserve the chance to really get back on track."

Over the weeks, Chipotle has been the target of jokes and critics alike --and rightly so.

The Food and Drug Administration reports 55 people were infected with E. Coli alone across the U.S., which resulted in 21 reported hospitalizations. The chain is now the focus of a criminal investigation by the FDA and  it has been slapped with a slew of lawsuits.  The latest one --this week--is from a shareholder suing Chipotle, alleging the fast food chain made false and misleading statements about its business to investors. 

Chipotle isn’t the only food supplier to have a major outbreak of food-poisoning.  In the 1993, Jack in the Box had an E.Coli crisis stemming from undercooked beef patties.  More recently, Blue Bell ice cream experienced a listeria outbreak, which forced the tubs off of store shelves. Both companies were able to fix their problems and turn their image around.  

But Chipotle's marketing has centered on the idea that it makes a high quality food. These outbreaks, and Chipotle’s problems in tracing the source, puts that question.

As way help its tarnished image, Chipotle earlier this month closed more than 2,000 locations to get employees up to speed on changes to its food safety measures. It also announced a $10 million investment in local farmers that supply ingredients to the food company.  To help build some media buzz around these efforts, chains gave away free burritos.

The give-away was "clearly part of a much larger plan to rebuild trust with the customers," Bruce Hennes, managing partner of Hennes Communications, a crisis communications firm based in Cleveland, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. 

Just how long it will take for the company turn around public opinion is still unclear, but some experts are predicting positive growth figures as early as the end of the year. 

Is that's hard to believe? Tristano says not really, given the "overwhelming" loyalty they have with some customer groups, especially the 18-35 male demographic. 

"Our research indicates that American consumers are very forgiving with restaurant brands they are loyal to and have developed both an affinity and frequency with," said Tristano.

So is Chipotle America's "emotionally abusive boyfriend?"  Sounds like for some, it's more like a relationship on the mend.