Chipotle is being hit with a sick fine.
The burrito behemoth agreed Tuesday to pay $25 million to settle criminal charges that it served tainted food to over 1,100 customers between 2015 and 2018.
Chipotle Mexican Grille Inc. was charged in a Los Angeles federal court on two counts of violating the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act when it provided adulterated food to its customers, leading to four outbreaks of norovirus, the leading cause of the stomach flu, which causes diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Not fun.
While many still associate the health and PR disaster that struck Chipotle after a 2015 E. coli outbreak, the incidents are actually unrelated. The norovirus fiasco began two months before the E. coli outbreak, sickening customers in Los Angeles and nearby Simi Valley, as well as Boston, Sterling, Virginia, and Powell, Ohio.
Chipotle has admitted that poor safety practices, such as not keeping food at proper temperatures to prevent pathogen growth, caused the norovirus outbreak. U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna, who prosecuted the case, asserted that “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.”
“Today’s steep penalty,” Mr. Hannah continued, “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.”
Echoing Hanna’s words, Chipotle assured customers that it has “introduced specific food safety policies and procedures to enhance its existing practices.” Still, the damage is done, both to the customers who were infected by the virus and to Chipotle’s reputation, which has now been sullied by health-safety concerns for five years. And as the unrelated COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect billions across the globe, it’s not a great time for the fast-casual franchise to be in the news regarding a viral outbreak.
On Tuesday, the Justice Department claimed that the $25 million settlement against Chipotle was the largest “ever imposed in a food-safety case.”