Chipotle agrees to record $25 million fine over tainted food

Chipotle.
Chipotle.

LOS ANGELES – Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. agreed Tuesday to pay a record $25 million fine to resolve criminal charges that it served tainted food that sickened more than 1,100 people in the U.S. in outbreaks from 2015 to 2018 and sent sales plunging.

The fast food company was charged in Los Angeles federal court with two counts of violating the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act by serving adulterated food that caused four outbreaks of norovirus, which causes diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal cramps, and a food poisoning incident.

The company admitted that poor safety practices, such as not keeping food at proper temperatures to prevent pathogen growth, sickened customers in Los Angeles and nearby Simi Valley, as well as Boston, Sterling, Virginia, and Powell, Ohio.

The string of outbreaks, which began in August 2015 in Simi Valley, came about two months before an E. coli outbreak at Chipotle spread to multiple states that temporarily closed dozens of restaurants and hurt sales as other food scares emerged. The criminal case was not related to E. coli.

The Newport Beach, California-based company entered into a deferred prosecution agreement that will allow it to avoid conviction by continuing to improve its food safety program, following other rules and paying the record-setting fine for a food safety case, federal prosecutors said.

“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 a statement. “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 company said in a statement that it would continue improving food safety practices that include reducing the number of employees who touch food, testing the quality of raw ingredients and tracing the movement of food supplies to determine where a problem may have occurred.

"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,” Brian Niccol, chairman and chief executive officer, said.