Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. has agreed to pay a $25 million criminal fine and institute a comprehensive food safety program to resolve criminal charges that it adulterated food that sickened more than 1,100 people across the U.S. from 2015 to 2018.
The U.S. Department of Justice charged the Newport Beach, Cal.-based Chipotle with two counts of violating the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act by adulterating food while held for sale after shipment in interstate commerce.
In conjunction with the criminal information filed in U.S. district court in Los Angeles, Cal., prosecutors also filed a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) in which Chipotle agreed to pay $25 million – the largest fine ever imposed in a food safety case.
The company said it will pay $10 million by June 1, 2020, followed by three separate payments of $5 million each to be paid every 30 days after the first payment.
The criminal charges stem, in part, from incidents related to outbreaks in Chipotle restaurants of norovirus, a highly contagious pathogen that can be easily transmitted by infected food workers handling ready-to-eat foods and their ingredients.
“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. “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.”
Assistant attorney general Jody Hunt of the DOJ Civil Division noted that the case highlights why it is important for restaurants and members of the foodservice industry to ensure that managers and employees consistently follow food safety policies.
“The Department of Justice will vigorously enforce food safety laws in order to protect public health,” she said.
Food & Drug Administration commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn said “FDA will hold food companies accountable when they endanger the public’s health by purveying adulterated food that causes outbreaks of illness. We will continue to investigate and bring to justice any company whose food products present a health hazard to consumers.”
In the DPA, Chipotle said from approximately 2015 to 2018, it faced at least five food safety incidents at various restaurants around the country stemming primarily from store-level employees’ failure to follow Chipotle’s food safety policies and procedures, including the policy requiring the exclusion of restaurant employees who were sick or recently had been sick, as well as a failure by restaurant employees to hold food at appropriate temperatures to prevent and control for the growth of foodborne pathogens.
The DPA also highlighted that some Chipotle employees reported stressful working conditions as well as inadequate staffing and training opportunities. In fact, it relayed that during the period of the outbreaks, store-level Chipotle employees, many of whom were teenagers and young adults, felt that they could not stay at home when they were sick. Due to the pressure of not wanting to let their teammates down or of finding people to cover their work shifts, these employees reported feeling pressure to work while sick, even though this was against Chipotle’s sick-exclusion policies.
As part of the agreement, Chipotle will develop and follow a comprehensive food safety compliance program. Chipotle will work with its Food Safety Council to evaluate, among other things, the company’s food safety audits, restaurant staffing and employee training to mitigate the issues that led to the outbreaks from 2015 to 2018.
If the company complies with the DPA for three years, the government will move to dismiss the criminal information, DOJ noted.