Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. will pay $25 million to resolve criminal charges related to the company’s foodborne illness outbreaks that sickened more than 1,100 people between 2015 and 2018, according to the Department of Justice.
The Newport Beach, California-based company agreed to a three-year deferred prosecution agreement that will allow it to avoid conviction if it complies with an improved food safety program. Chipotle also agreed to pay the $25 million criminal fine, which DOJ says is the largest ever in a food safety case.
DOJ officially charged the restaurant chain in federal court in Los Angeles with adulterating food in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
“This case highlights why it is important for restaurants and members of the food services industry to ensure that managers and employees consistently follow food safety policies,” said Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt of the DOJ’s Civil Division.
The charges stem in part from incidents related to outbreaks of norovirus, a highly infective pathogen that easily can be transmitted by food workers handling ready-to-eat foods and their ingredients. Norovirus can cause severe illness, including diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and stomach pain.
Chipotle was implicated in at least five foodborne illness outbreaks between 2015 and 2018 connected to restaurants in the Los Angeles area, Boston, Virginia, and Ohio. These incidents primarily stemmed from store-level employees’ failure to follow company food safety protocols at company-owned restaurants, including a Chipotle policy requiring the exclusion of employees who were sick or recently had been sick, according to the court documents.
For example, in August 2015, 234 consumers and employees of a Chipotle restaurant in Simi Valley, California reported becoming ill. Although company policies required the restaurant to report certain employee illnesses to Chipotle safety officials and to implement enhanced food safety procedures, the restaurant did not pass along information regarding an ill employee until multiple consumers already had reported being sick.
In December 2015, a norovirus incident at a Chipotle restaurant in Boston sickened 141 people. According to the DPA, that outbreak likely was the result of an ill apprentice manager who was ordered to continue working in violation of company policy after vomiting in the restaurant. Two days later, the same employee helped package a catering order for a Boston College basketball team, whose members were among the consumers sickened by the outbreak.
In July 2018, approximately 647 people who dined at a Chipotle restaurant in Powell, Ohio reported illness related to Clostridium perfringens, a pathogen that grows rapidly when food is not held at appropriate temperatures. The local health department found critical violations of local food regulations, including those specific to time and temperature controls for lettuce and beans.
According to the court filings, some store-level Chipotle employees from the 2015 to 2018 time period reported inadequate staffing and food safety training. Employees also reported pressure to work while sick, even though that was against Chipotle’s sick-exclusion policies.
Chipotle has agreed to develop and follow an improved food safety compliance program.
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