In 2015, we were involved in litigation with Chipotle over Norovirus cases in Massachusetts and California and a Salmonella outbreak in Minnesota. And, folks recall both E. coli outbreaks – O26 and O157 as well, which we also prosecuted.
Then the Justice Departments press release – its headlines ALL CAPS – landed in my inbox.
Damn, this is a significant fine.
California-Based Company Agrees to Pay Largest-Ever Fine in a Food-Safety Case and Implement a Comprehensive Food Safety Compliance Program
WASHINGTON – Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. will pay $25 million to resolve criminal charges related to the company’s involvement in foodborne illness outbreaks that sickened more than 1,100 people between 2015 and 2018, the Department of Justice announced today.
A criminal information filed today in federal court in Los Angeles charges Chipotle with adulterating food in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The Newport Beach, California-based company agreed to a three-year deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) that will allow it to avoid conviction if it complies with an improved food safety program. Chipotle also agreed to pay the $25 million criminal fine, the largest ever in a food safety case, as part of the DPA.
“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.”
“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,” said U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna for the Central District of California. “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.”
“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, M.D. “We will continue to investigate and bring to justice any company whose food products present a health hazard to consumers.”
The charges stem in part from incidents related to outbreaks of norovirus, a highly infective pathogen that easily can be transmitted by food workers handling ready-to-eat foods and their ingredients. Norovirus can cause severe illness, including diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and stomach pain.
According to the factual statement in the DPA, which the company agreed was true, Chipotle was implicated in at least five foodborne illness outbreaks between 2015 and 2018 connected to restaurants in the Los Angeles area, Boston, Virginia, and Ohio. These 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.
For example, in August 2015, 234 consumers and employees of a Chipotle restaurant in Simi Valley, California reported becoming ill. Although company policies required the restaurant to report certain employee illnesses to Chipotle safety officials and to implement enhanced food safety procedures, the restaurant did not pass along information regarding an ill employee until multiple consumers already had reported being sick.
In December 2015, a norovirus incident at a Chipotle restaurant in Boston sickened 141 people. According to the DPA, that outbreak likely was 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 helped package a catering order for a Boston College basketball team, whose members were among the consumers sickened by the outbreak.
In July 2018, approximately 647 people who dined 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 local health department found critical violations of local food regulations, including those specific to time and temperature controls for lettuce and beans.
As set out in the DPA, some store-level Chipotle employees from the 2015 to 2018 time period reported inadequate staffing and food safety training. Employees also reported pressure to work while sick, even though that was against Chipotle’s sick-exclusion policies.
Chipotle agreed in the DPA to develop and follow an improved, comprehensive food safety compliance program. 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.
This investigation was conducted by the Food and Drug Administration-Office of Criminal Investigations. The government is represented by 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.
For more information about the Consumer Protection Branch and its enforcement efforts, visit its website at http://www.justice.gov/civil/consumer-protection-branch. For more information about the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California, visit its website at https://www.justice.gov/usao-cdca.
The year 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the Department of Justice. Learn more about the history of our agency at www.Justice.gov/Celebrating150Years.
Here is a bit of my history with Chipotle:
In July 2018 public health investigators at the Delaware General Health District (DGHD) and the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) investigated an outbreak of Clostridium perfringens associated with Chipotle Mexican Grill located at 9733 Sawmill Parkway in Powell, Ohio. Six hundred forty-seven people became ill after eating at the restaurant between July 26 and July 30. Chipotle closed the store on Monday, July 30. After implementing its food-safety-response protocols which included replacing the food and cleaning the restaurant, the facility reopened on July 31.
The Loudoun County Health Department reported that more than 135 people were sickened after eating food from the Chipotle Mexican Grill located at 21031 Tripleseven Road in Sterling, Virginia. The first reports of illness occurred on July 13, 2017. Two ill patrons tested positive for norovirus. The outbreak was attributed to an ill food handler.
More than 120 Boston College students were taken ill after eating at the same Chipotle at 1924 Beacon Street in Brighton in December 2015. After receiving reports of multiple cases of gastrointestinal illness among patrons who ate at the Chipotle Mexican Grill in Cleveland Circle, the Boston Public Health Commission, the City of Boston Inspectional Services Department, and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health launched an investigation to determine the cause and the nature of the illness. Laboratory testing confirmed the presence of norovirus. There were 136 known cases of norovirus from people who ate at Chipotle; others who were contacts to these cases have also become ill. City inspectors closed the Chipotle, located in Brighton near BC’s campus, “until further notice” after reporting three critical health violations following a visit Monday.
The CDC, FDA, USDA FSIS and public health officials in several states investigated two outbreaks of E. coli O26 linked to food sold at Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants. Public health investigators used PulseNet to identify illnesses that were part of the outbreaks. Two different rare PFGE patterns were included in these investigations. Outbreak #1: A total of 55 people infected with PulseNet strain EVCX01.1180/EVCA26.0773 were reported by 11 states. The majority of cases were reported from Washington (27) and Oregon (13). Other states included California (3), Delaware (1), Illinois (1), Kentucky (1), Maryland (1), Minnesota (2), New York (1), Ohio (3) and Pennsylvania (2). Among people for whom information was available, illnesses started on dates ranging from October 19, 2015 to December 1, 2015. Twenty-one (38%) reported being hospitalized. There were no reports of hemolytic uremic syndrome or deaths. This outbreak was assigned CDC Outbreak ID 1511MLEVC-1. Outbreak #2: In December 2015 a second outbreak with a different rare strain of E. coli O26 was identified. A total of 5 people were reported from three states, Kansas (1), North Dakota (1) and Oklahoma (3). Illness onsets for these outbreak cases ranged from November 18, 2015 to November 26, 2015. One person reported being hospitalized. There were no reports of hemolytic uremic syndrome or deaths. A review of chipotle’s distribution records by state and federal regulators was unable to identify a single food item or ingredient that could explain illnesses in either outbreak.
In August 2015 Ventura County Environmental Health and Ventura County Public Health Division staff investigated an outbreak of norovirus among patrons of a Chipotle restaurant located in the Simi Valley Towne Center. During the week of August 18, 2015 about 80 customers and 18 restaurant employees reported symptoms. Laboratory testing of patient specimens confirmed the presence of Norovirus. The restaurant closed for thorough cleaning before reopening.
Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and Minnesota Department of Agriculture investigators reported an outbreak of Salmonella Newport among customers of 17 different Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants. The MDH Public Health Laboratory detected two PFGE outbreak strains identified as PulseNet patterns JJPX01.0030 and JPX01.0011. In total 92 culture confirmed case patients were identified. Eighty-one (88%) of the 92 cases reported that they ate or likely ate at a Chipotle location before onset of Illness. Ten (12%) cases denied exposure to Chipotle and one (1%) case was secondary to a household member with Chipotle exposure. In addition to the confirmed cases, 34 persons met the definition as a probable case. Among the 115 (81 confirmed and 34 probable) cases, illness onset dates ranged from August 2 to September 27. Seventeen cases were hospitalized, 18 were seen at an emergency department and 54 sought care at an outpatient clinic. No cases died. Analysis of case control data showed that mild tomato salsa, carnitas and brown rice were significantly associated with illness. Tomatoes were implicated as the outbreak vehicle by an ingredient-specific analytic study, supported by internal product distribution information provided by chipotle corporate. The ultimate source of contamination (i.e., the tomato farm or packing house) was not identified.
In early August 2015 Public Health Seattle King County (PHSKC) investigated an outbreak of E. coli O157 that occurred among five patrons of Chipotle Mexican Grill located at 1415 Broadway in Seattle, Washington. Illness onset dates occurred on July 28, 2015 (1 case), July 29 (2 cases) and July 31 (2 cases). All five cases reported experiencing diarrhea that turned bloody and abdominal cramps. Two cases reported vomiting. Two cases reported fever. Three cases were hospitalized. Two sought treatment at an emergency department. None of the patients developed Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. There were no deaths. The Washington Department of Health (WDOH) Public Health Laboratory (PHL) conducted genetic testing by pulsed field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) on isolates cultured from patients’ specimens. Test results showed that all were infected with an indistinguishable genetic strain assigned PulseNet Identification Numbers EXHX01.0012/EXHA26.1779. This strain had not been seen previously in King County.