Chipotle agrees to $25M fine over criminal charges it sickened 1,100 people with norovirus

Chipotle Mexican Grill has agreed to pay a $25 million criminal fine and institute a food safety program to resolve criminal charges that it sickened more than 1,100 people across the U.S. from 2015 to 2018.
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Chipotle Mexican Grill has agreed to pay a $25 million criminal fine and institute a food safety program to resolve criminal charges that it sickened more than 1,100 people across the U.S. from 2015 to 2018.

Chipotle Mexican Grill has agreed to pay a $25 million criminal fine and institute a food safety program to resolve criminal charges that it sickened more than 1,100 people across the U.S. from 2015 to 2018.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department charged the Newport Beach, California-based eatery with two counts of violating federal safety standards by adulterating food while held for sale after shipment in interstate commerce.

In conjunction with the charges, filed in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, prosecutors also filed a deferred prosecution agreement in which Chipotle agreed to pay $25 million, the largest fine imposed in a food safety case.

The criminal charges stem mostly 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.

Norovirus can cause severe symptoms, including diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal cramping.

From 2015 to 2018, Chipotle faced at least five food safety incidents at various restaurants around the country, which stemmed from its workers’ failure to follow Chipotle’s food safety policies. The incidents happened at the chain’s locations in Los Angeles and Simi Valley, California; Boston; Sterling, Virginia; and Powell, Ohio.

In August 2015, 234 consumers and employees in Simi Valley became ill. Later, in December, over nine days, 141 people became ill because of a norovirus incident in Boston. Two days later, a Boston College basketball team was sickened by the outbreak.

Over eight days in July 2018, more than 640 people who dined in Chipotle’s Powell, Ohio, restaurant, became ill from a bacteria that grows when food is not held at appropriate temperatures.

Some Chipotle employees reported stressful working conditions, as well as inadequate staffing and training opportunities, according to Tuesday’s settlement.

From 2015 to 2018, store-level Chipotle employees, many of whom were teenagers and young adults, felt 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.

Chipotle has also agreed to develop and follow a comprehensive food safety compliance program. If the company complies with the agreement for three years, the government will dismiss the criminal information.