NEWPORT BEACH (CBSLA) – Chipotle Mexican Grill, which has faced multiple foodborne illness outbreaks in recent years, has agreed to pay $25 million to settle criminal charges linked to those outbreaks, prosecutors announced Tuesday.
A criminal information filed in federal court in Los Angeles charges Chipotle with adulterating food in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Newport Beach-based burrito chain 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, prosecutors said.
The $25 million criminal fine is the largest ever in a food safety case.
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, according to a statement in the DPA.
The DOJ says the incidents stemmed primarily 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.
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.
One of those incidents cited occurred in August 2015, when 234 consumers and employees of a Chipotle restaurant in Simi Valley 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, prosecutors said.