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Chipotle to pay $25 million fine over food safety violations

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Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. will pay $25 million to resolve criminal charges related to the company’s involvement in foodborne illness outbreaks that sickened more than 1,100 people between 2015 and 2018, according to the Department of Justice.

A criminal information report filed this week in federal court in Los Angeles charges Chipotle with adulterating food in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.  The company agreed to a three-year deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) 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, the largest ever in a food safety case, as part of the DPA.

“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 Department of Justice’s Civil Division. “The Department of Justice will vigorously enforce food safety laws in order to protect public health.”

The fine comes just a couple of months after Chipotle was fined $1.3 million in connection to more than 13,000 child labor violations at its Massachusetts locations.

The California-based fast-food company has long raised red flags among the agricultural community for its vicious attacks on genetic engineering and the farmers who grow them, while still selling high-margin GMO products such as sodas and cheese in its restaurants. Recent efforts by Chipotle to mend those fences have been with skepticism.

The federal charges stem, in part, from incidents related to outbreaks of norovirus, which have plagued Chipotle’s restaurants in recent years. Norovirus is a highly infective pathogen that easily can be transmitted by food workers handling ready-to-eat foods and their ingredients. It can cause severe illness, including diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and stomach pain.

“Chipotle failed to ensure that its employees both understood and complied with its food safety protocols, resulting in hundreds of customers across the country getting sick,” said U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna for the Central District of California. 

According to the factual statement in the DPA, which the company agreed was true, 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.

For example, 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.

Chipotle agreed to work with its Food Safety Council to evaluate the company’s food safety audits, restaurant staffing, and employee training, among other areas, to mitigate the issues that led to the outbreaks.

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