Chipotle Agrees to $25 Million Settlement Over Norovirus Outbreaks
Fast-casual restaurant chain Chipotle Mexican Grill has agreed to pay a $25 million fine, which is an eight-figure acknowledgment of the foodborne norovirus outbreaks that sickened more than 1,100 customers between 2015 and 2018. The California-based company was charged with adulterating food, a violation of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
According to the Department of Justice, this is the largest ever criminal fine related to a food safety case. The department said that Chipotle agreed that its restaurants had been "implicated in" at least five norovirus outbreaks that were reported in Boston, Ohio, Virginia, and Simi Valley, California.
"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," the factual statement read. (Chipotle did not dispute the accuracy of those claims.)
"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,” U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said in a statement. “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.”
Chipotle addressed the settlement in a press release, one that also did its best to emphasize that some of those norovirus outbreaks happened five years ago. (The year 2015 appears five times in the statement, in phrases like "issues from 2015" and "incidents dating back to 2015," while Chairman and CEO Brian Nicol said that the chain wanted to "turn the page" and "close a chapter" on its recent past.)
“Over the last four years, we instituted several enhancements to our food preparation and food handling practices to lower the risk of foodborne illnesses. These measures include reducing the number of employees who come into contact with ingredients, safeguards to minimize the risk that an ingredient is undercooked, and sophisticated microbiological testing of raw ingredients to help ensure quality and safety before they are shipped to restaurants,” Kerry Bridges, Chipotle's Vice-President of Food Safety said.
“Chipotle also traces the movement of each ingredient in our supply chain. If an ingredient does not meet our high standards, we can quickly determine when and where the problem occurred, and swiftly remove it before it enters our restaurants."
According to the Department of Justice, Chipotle agreed to a three-year deferred prosecution agreement that requires it to develop and adhere to "an improved food safety compliance program," and to continue working with its independent Food Safety Advisory Council, which already evaluates its food preparation and handling practices, and its employee training program, among other things.
"At Chipotle, food safety is more than a collection of programs and processes—it’s part of our culture," Bridges said. "Food safety is built into everything Chipotle does so that customers’ safety is the first and most important standard we hold ourselves to."