The National Consumers League (NCL) published a report last week claiming that Chipotle Mexican Grill’s management style could lead to more food safety issues for the chain of fast-casual restaurants. 

The report, entitled The Unsavory Side of Food with Integrity, “details management practices that lead to worker abuses and calls into question protocols Chipotle put in place after recent food safety crises.”

NCL first interviewed “hundreds of” Chipotle employees, then conducted formal interviews with 47 workers at 25 Chipotle stores in New York City. The statements gathered uncover that Chipotle’s management tends to pressure these employees to “work fast without following proper food safety procedures.” In addition to a first-hand account from employees, NCL’s report also takes into consideration a variety of corporate filings, press reports, and other publicly available documents.

NCL’s 36-page report includes some very specific employee accounts, including:

  • One worker being pressured to work while sick, even after the worker vomited partway into his shift;
  • Undercooked chicken being served to a customer because the grill cook out in place had not been properly trained;
  • Workers pressured to work so fast that during lunch and dinner rushes, they often flipped over chopping boards used to cut raw meat, and reused the boards without washing them;
  • One worker who cooked food had to clean feces off the floor or ceiling of a bathroom multiple times without hazmat suit or adequate protection equipment;
  • Pressure to work without stopping, with no time left to wash their hands for hours on end.

At least two named employees say they decided to blow the whistle regarding what’s occurring in their workplace because, “our Chipotle managers did not listen to us,” and also because, “I want to make Chipotle a better place to work and a better place for customers to eat,”

Report findings include:

  • Managerial pay incentives that promote cutting food safety corners: managers can earn up to an additional 25 percent of base pay by meeting performance goals that include reducing labor costs, creating a highly pressurized work environment. This bonus program may incentivize managers to meet productivity goals by cutting corners on food safety or by violating worker protection laws.
  • Ineffective store audits: Worker interviews revealed that general managers frequently know when supposedly independent audits are coming because other managers or field leaders who have been inspected often tip them off. Workers reported that managers have relaxed rules following outside of inspection periods and tightened up adherence to food safety protocols when an audit is imminent.
  • Pressure to work sick: New York-based workers reported that managers have pressured crew members to work while sick or retaliated against workers for taking paid sick leave.
  • Minimal training: Despite the substantial skills needed to safely prepare Chipotle’s fresh food menu, many new hires receive minimal training and “learn as they go” from co-workers who may not have received much training themselves.

"The findings of this report call into question the effectiveness of measures that Chipotle put in place to solve their food safety crises of a few years ago," says Sally Greenberg, executive director of NCL, which co-authored the report. "If Chipotle executive management and the Food Safety Advisory Council are responsible for making sure that this program is implemented effectively to keep the public safe, they have been asleep at the wheel."

New York Councilmember Mark Levine, chairman of the New York City Council Public Health Committee, says, “This is deeply troubling to me. Risk of contagion should not be aggravated by an aggressive incentive structure that encourages managers to abuse workers and cut food safety corners. The public needs to know more and Chipotle needs to change their policies. That is why I am calling for a public hearing in the Council. I encourage Chipotle workers and consumers to come forward to discuss these issues. I also invite the company to be there to engage in this conversation." 

For reference, Chipotle was plagued by a number of food safety issues between 2015 and 2018, including: 

July 2018 - An Ohio Chipotle store temporarily closed after hundreds complain of foodborne illness

July 2017 - Online reports of foodborne illness point to a Virginia-area Chipotle store 

March 2016 - Sick employees prompt a Massachusetts store to temporarily close 

December 2015 - CDC announces E. coli outbreak linked to Chipotle; Boston college student sickened 

November 2015 - Chipotle stores in Oregon and Washington temporarily close after E. coli outbreak 

In late 2019, we learned that Chipotle would be enlisting the help of nurses to allow certain sick employees to stay home, with pay, before returning to work. 

Sign up for Food Safety Magazine’s bi-weekly emails!

Subscribe to our podcast: Food Safety Matters!