Fast casual restaurant Chipotle Mexican Grill has agreed to pay $25 million to settle criminal charges against the company for food-safety violations.
In a news release sent out Tuesday, the Department of Justice announced the California-based company’s agreement to pay the record amount. The DOJ announced that Chipotle agreed to a three-year deferred prosecution agreement if it pays the criminal fine and complies with improved food safety standards.
“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 charges related in part to Chipotle-linked norovirus outbreaks between 2015 and 2018 that resulted in 1,100 Americans getting sick. A factual statement included in the company’s deferred prosecution agreement said Chipotle was responsible for at least five foodborne illness outbreaks during those years at restaurants in the Los Angeles area, Boston, Ohio, and Virginia.
“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. “Today’s steep penalty, coupled with the tens of millions of dollars Chipotle already has spent to upgrade its food safety program since 2015, should result in greater protections for Chipotle customers and remind others in the industry to review and improve their own health and safety practices.”
The outbreaks included one incident in August 2015 where 234 customers and employees of a single Chipotle restaurant in Simi Valley, California, became sick. The DOJ found that while company policy required certain employee illnesses be reported to Chipotle safety officials, the restaurant did not comply. In another incident in December 2015, 141 customers and staff were sickened at a Boston Chipotle restaurant. The DOJ found that an apprentice manager who was so sick they vomited in the restaurant was forced to continue working in violation of company policy. Another incident, in July 2018, resulted in 647 customers reporting an illness related to Clostridium perfringens, which thrives on food not held at appropriate temperatures.
“The FDA will hold food companies accountable when they endanger the public’s health by purveying adulterated food that causes outbreaks of illness,” said Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn, M.D. “We will continue to investigate and bring to justice any company whose food products present a health hazard to consumers.”
As part of its deferred prosecution agreement, Chipotle will implement an improved food safety compliance program that will evaluate previous food safety audits, restaurant staffing and food safety training, as well as other areas that may have contributed to the outbreaks.
In addition to norovirus outbreaks, Chipotle also dealt with two E. coli outbreaks in 2016.