In the Chipotle Mexican Grill case, DOJ entered into a three-year deferred prosecution agreement (“DPA”) in exchange for the payment of a $25 million penalty stemming from a string of foodborne-illness cases between 2015 and 2018 involving its restaurants in which more than 1100 people became ill.
The charges against Chipotle stem from outbreaks of norovirus, a highly infective pathogen that is easily transmitted by food workers handling ready-to-eat foods. Norovirus can cause severe illness, including diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomach pain.
Between 2015 and 2018, Chipotle was cited for at least five foodborne illness outbreaks in Los Angeles area restaurants, Boston, Virginia and Ohio. In these incidents, employees failed to follow company food safety procedures at company-owned restaurants, including a requirement that requires ill employees to be excluded from the workplace.
As an example, in August 2015, 234 customers and employees at a Chipotle restaurant in Simi Valley, California became ill. The Chipotle restaurant failed to report an ill employee to Chipotle safety officials and to implement enhanced food safety procedures in response to the employee’s illness. Further, the Chipotle restaurant did not communicate information about the ill employee until after customers reported becoming sick from the food.
In December 2015, a norovirus incident at a Chipotle restaurant in Boston caused 141 customers to become ill, which was likely the result of an ill apprentice manager who was ordered to continue working in violation of company policy after vomiting in the restaurant. Two days later, the same employee packaged a catering order for a Boston College basketball team, whose team members were among the ill customers.
As another example, in July 2018, approximately 647 people who ate at a Chipotle restaurant in Powell, Ohio reported illness related to clostridium perfringens, a pathogen that grows rapidly when food is not held at appropriate temperatures. The Ohio health department found critical violations of local food regulations, including specific time and temperature standards for lettuce and beans.
During the 2015 to 2018 period, Chipotle maintained inadequate staffing levels and deficient food safety training. Employees were often subjected to pressure to continue working while ill, even though such practices violated Chipotle’s policies requiring exclusion of sick employees.
As part of the DPA, Chipotle agreed to implement enhanced food safety policies and procedures. As part of this enhanced effort, Chipotle agree to work with its Food Safety Council to evaluate the company’s food safety audits, restaurant staffing levels, employee training and other issues in order to mitigate food safety risks.