Chipotle Mexican Grill will pay a $25 million fine to settle criminal charges related to its role in outbreaks of foodborne illnesses at its restaurants beginning in 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice said Tuesday.
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The fast-casual chain agreed to pay the fine, the largest in history for a case related to food safety, as part of a three-year deferred prosecution agreement with the DOJ. Chipotle will avoid further charges if it complies with strict food safety guidelines over the three-year term.
“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.”
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More than 1,100 people were sickened in outbreaks stemming from Chipotle restaurants from 2015 to 2018, according to a DOJ release. Chipotle admitted fault in outbreaks at restaurants in Los Angeles, Boston, Virginia and Ohio.
The outbreaks included several cases of norovirus, a severe ailment that can cause nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. DOJ officials said the outbreaks were due to a failure by Chipotle workers to adhere to food safety guidelines while handling food.
“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. “We will continue to investigate and bring to justice any company whose food products present a health hazard to consumers.”
In one incident in 2015, 141 people fell ill with norovirus after visiting a Chipotle restaurant in Boston. Authorities said the outbreak occurred after a manager was told to continue to work despite being sick. A July 2018 outbreak of another foodborne illness occurred in Ohio, sickening 647 people, after ingredients were stored at improper temperatures.
Chipotle experienced a plunge in sales and store traffic in early 2016 following multiple outbreaks. The company said it has since overhauled its food safety practices to prevent further incidents.
As part of its settlement, Chipotle agreed to work with the Food Safety Council to ensure that guidelines are met and restaurant employees are adequately trained.
“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,” Brian Niccol, Chipotle’s chairman and CEO, said in a statement.