Chipotle will pay a $25 million fine for its criminal involvement in foodborne illness outbreaks that harmed more than 1,100 people between 2015 and 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The DOJ said the fine is the largest for a food safety case.

The fast-casual chain was charged with adulterating food in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. To avoid conviction, Chipotle agreed to the $25 million fine and to implement an improved food safety program and work with the 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.”

“The FDA will hold food companies accountable when they endanger the public’s health by purveying adulterated food that causes outbreaks of illness,” said FDA 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.”

Chipotle was linked to outbreaks of norovirus, which the DOJ described as “a highly infective pathogen that easily can be transmitted by food workers handling ready-to-eat foods and their ingredients.” The restaurant admitted fault for five outbreaks in Los Angeles, Boston, Virginia, and Ohio. The DOJ said the outbreaks occurred because employees didn’t follow protocol, including a policy that prevents sick—or recently sick—employees from working.

From 2015 to 2018, employees reported inadequate staffing and said they were pressured to work while sick.

In August 2015, 234 customers and Chipotle employees became sick in Simi Valley, California. According to the DOJ, the restaurant violated policy when it did not report information about a sick employee until several customers became ill.

Later that year in December, 141 people fell ill in Boston. The incident was traced back to a sick manager who was forced to continue working after vomiting in the restaurant. That same worker handled a catering order for Boston College’s men’s basketball team whose members were among the 141 that became sick.

In July 2018, 647 people became sick in Powell, Ohio. That group became sick because the Chipotle location violated time and temperature regulations for lettuce and beans. The illness was related to “Clostridium perfringens,” a pathogen that grows rapidly when food is not held at appropriate temperatures.

This investigation was conducted by the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations.

“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, 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 said that since 2015, it has introduced “specific food safety policies and procedures to enhance its existing practices based upon a farm-to-fork safety and quality review of each ingredient.”

“This settlement represents an acknowledgment of how seriously Chipotle takes food safety every day and is an opportunity to definitively turn the page on past events and focus on serving our customers real food made with real ingredients that they can enjoy with confidence,” said CEO Brian Niccol in a statement. 

Among the strengthened policies are sophisticated systems and testing to monitor food safety risks, traceability of each ingredient through the supply chain, requiring workers to wash their hands at least every hour, wellness checks for employees prior to shifts, improved internal training, engagement of a third party to give quarterly inspections, and several other initiatives. 

Chipotle also formed an independent Food Safety Advisory Council in 2017, which is comprised of food safety professionals that provide guidance. 

“Having served as Chairman of Chipotle’s Food Safety Advisory Council since it was formed in early 2017, I can confidently say that the food safety advancements Chipotle has made are industry leading and serve as a best-practice for the restaurant industry. Chipotle continues to look for every opportunity to be ahead of food safety risks and is unquestionably committed to protecting its customers and employees against norovirus and other food borne illnesses,” said Dr. David Acheson, former associate FDA commissioner and founder of The Acheson Group, in a statement. 

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chipotle enhanced its health and safety standards even further by increasing sanitization of high-touch, high-traffic areas, providing face masks for employees, practicing social distancing in the restaurant, increasing handwashing to at least every 30 minutes, and providing tamper-evident bags and contactless delivery and pickup. 

“Chipotle is committed to doing the right thing for our customers and employees. We look forward to continuing to provide a great experience for our customers while closing one chapter on the past. We are confident in the additional safeguards we have put in place to ensure the health and safety of our customers and employees,” Niccol said. 

Fast Casual, Finance, Food Safety, Story, Chipotle