Chipotle Mexican Grill has agreed to pay a record $25 million criminal penalty to resolve charges that its poor food safety practices caused a series of food poisoning outbreaks across the U.S. from 2015 to 2018.
The Newport Beach, California-based restaurant chain faced two counts of violating the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act by serving food contaminated with pathogens as a result of poor safety practices that promoted outbreaks of foodborne illness.
Several Outbreaks of Foodborne Illness
Several outbreaks of foodborne illness sprang up in Chipotle restaurants from coast to coast between 2015 and 2018, sickening more than 1,100 people.
Simi Valley, California
The problem started in August 2015 at a Chipotle restaurant in Simi Valley where 234 consumers and employees became sickened with norovirus, a highly contagious pathogen often associated with cruise ships because of its ability to spread like wildfire among exposed populations. Norovirus causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal cramps.
Investigators found that a Chipotle worker at the Simi Valley location became sick and vomited at the restaurant. The employee was sent home, but the restaurant failed to report the illness internally, as required by law, and also failed to implement food safety procedures until two days later. By that time, however, dozens of people had been exposed and fell ill.
A similar occurrence happened in Boston in December 2015 when 141 people reported contracting a norovirus-type illness after eating at a Chipotle restaurant. Several members of the Boston College basketball team also became sick after eating meals catered by the restaurant. Prosecutors said the outbreak was likely caused when an employee who vomited in the restaurant was ordered to keep working, according to the Associated Press.
Nearly 700 people were sickened after eating at a Chipotle in Powell, Ohio, between July 24-26, 2018. That outbreak was linked to clostridium perfringens bacteria caused by keeping food at unsafe temperatures.
“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.
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.”
Record Fine Leads to New Food Safety Measures
The $25 million fine is the largest fine ever handed down in a food safety case. The U.S. District Court in Los Angeles where the charges were tried allowed Chipotle to avoid conviction by implementing better food safety measures company-wide. Chipotle said it has been making improvements to its food safety program over the last four years.
A spokesperson for the company told USA Today the measures include limiting the number of employees who come into contact with ingredients; introducing safeguards to minimize the risk of undercooking food, and using advanced microbiological testing of raw ingredients to check quality and safety before they are distributed to restaurants.