Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. will pay a $25 million criminal fine to resolve allegations by federal prosecutors that its food sickened more than 1,100 people across the U.S. from 2015 to 2018.
It’s the largest fine ever imposed in a food-safety case, according to a statement Tuesday by the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles.
The criminal charges pertain in part to norovirus outbreaks at Chipotle restaurants. The highly contagious virus can be transmitted by infected food workers handling ready-to-eat foods and their ingredients, according to the statement. It can cause severe symptoms, including diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal cramping.
“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,” U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said in the statement announcing the deferred-prosecution agreement.
The Newport Beach, California-based company said that, as part of the agreement, it will its strengthen its food-safety polices and practices.
“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, chairman and chief executive officer of the company, said in a statement.
Prosecutors alleged that four norovirus outbreaks were caused by employees showing up to work sick, in violation of company policy, and by food products being stored at the wrong temperatures.
A fifth outbreak — which sickened about 647 people in July 2018 who dined at a Chipotle in Ohio — was from Clostridium perfringens, a bacterium found in raw meat and poultry that is one of the most common types of foodborne illness in the U.S. People who get ill from it usually recover in 24 hours and it’s not contagious.
Managers at the company’s restaurants failed on a number of occasions to notify Chipotle’s safety group at its headquarters when an employee had been vomiting at work, according to prosecutors. Instead, the safety analysts would find out only after contacting the restaurant because it had received a complaint from a sick customer. As a result, there were days of delay before the restaurants were sanitized.
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