Chipotle Mexican Grill has agreed to pay the federal government an unprecedented $25 million to resolve criminal charges stemming from a foodborne virus outbreak that sickened more than 1,100 customers nationwide, the Justice Department announced.
The fine -- the largest ever in a federal food safety case -- is part of a three-year deferred prosecution agreement that will allow the California-based company to avoid a criminal conviction if it complies with an improved food safety program, DOJ officials said Tuesday.
Papers filed in federal court in Los Angeles on Tuesday charge Chipotle with adulterating food in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
The charges stem in part from outbreaks of a norovirus, a highly infective pathogen that easily can be transmitted by food workers handling ready-to-eat foods and their ingredients, the government said.
Norovirus can cause severe illness, including diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and stomach pain.
Chipotle has 68 restaurants in New Jersey, from Basking Ridge to Woodbridge, including two each in Jersey City, Paramus, Marlton and Springfield.
It has 160 restaurants in New York, including 52 in New York City, and 24 in Connecticut.
As part of the deferred prosecution agreement, Chipotle accepted responsibility for at least five foodborne illness outbreaks between 2015 and 2018 connected to restaurants in the Los Angeles area, Boston, Virginia, and Ohio.
The 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 Justice Department said.
In one instance, federal authorities said, a restaurant didn't report an ill employee until several customers already had gotten sick.
In another incident, 141 customers were sickened after an employee vomited at a Chipotle in Boston, they said. The same employee helped package a catering order for a Boston College basketball team whose members were among the consumers sickened by the outbreak, the Justice Department said.
In Powell, Ohio, 647 people who ate at a Chipotle restaurant reported illnesses related to a pathogen that grows rapidly when food isn't kept at specific temperatures, federal officials said.
The local health department found critical violations of local food regulations, including those specific to time and temperature controls for lettuce and beans, they said.
“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.
“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,” U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna for the Central District of California added.
Chipotle agreed in the deferred prosecution agreement to develop and follow an improved, comprehensive food safety compliance program, authorities said.
Chipotle agreed to work with its 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, they said.
The company also agreed to pay the $25 million, Justice Department officials said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration-Office of Criminal Investigations conducted the probe.
Handling the case for the government is Trial Attorney Daniel E. Zytnick of the Justice Department’s Consumer Protection Branch, and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Joseph O. Johns and Mark A. Williams and Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Sonia W. Nath of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California’s Environmental and Community Safety Crimes Section.
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