Today, Chipotle Mexican Grill agreed to pay a record $25 million criminal fine—and institute a better food safety program—to settle criminal charges that the fast-casual chain served contaminated food to customers, sickening more than 1,100 people between 2015 and 2018. Federal prosecutors say the fine is the largest fine in a food safety case.
Chipotle was charged with two counts of violating the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act by adulterating food while held for sale after shipment in interstate commerce.
As the company admitted in the deferred prosecution agreement: “From approximately 2015 to 2018, Chipotle faced at least five food safety incidents at various restaurants around the country, which stemmed primarily from store-level employees’ failure to follow Chipotle’s food safety policies and procedures, including the policy requiring the exclusion of restaurant employees who were sick or recently had been sick, as well as a failure by restaurant employees to hold food at appropriate temperatures to prevent and control for the growth of foodborne pathogens.” These incidents primarily stemmed from store-level employees’ failure to follow company food safety protocols at company-owned restaurants in Los Angeles; Simi Valley, California; Boston; Sterling, Virginia; and Powell, Ohio.
Some Chipotle employees reported stressful working conditions, as well as inadequate staffing and training opportunities, according to the agreement. During the period from 2015 to 2018, store-level Chipotle employees, many of whom were teenagers and young adults, felt that they could not stay at home when they were sick. Due to the pressure of not wanting to let their teammates down, or of finding people to cover their work shifts, these employees reported feeling pressure to work while sick, even though this was against Chipotle’s sick-exclusion policies.
“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,” says U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna. “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.”
“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,” says 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.”
“The FDA will hold food companies accountable when they endanger the public’s health by purveying adulterated food that causes outbreaks of illness,” says U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 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.”
In the agreement, Chipotle also agreed to develop and follow a comprehensive food safety compliance program. As part of this program, Chipotle will work with its Food Safety Council to evaluate, among other things, the company’s food safety audits, restaurant staffing and employee training to mitigate the issues that led to the outbreaks from 2015 to 2018. If the company complies with the deferred prosecution agreement for 3 years, the government will move to dismiss the criminal information.
This case was investigated by the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations.