- Chipotle has reached a $25 million settlement agreement stemming from the company’s foodborne illness outbreaks that sickened more than 1,100 people between 2015 and 2018. The Department of Justice announced the settlement, which included criminal charges from the norovirus outbreaks, on Tuesday before the company’s Q1 2020 earnings call.
- As part of the three-year agreement stemming from an FDA investigation, Chipotle has agreed to continue enhancing its food safety policies, practices and procedures, on top of its $25 million monetary fine. The chain will make four payments toward that fine, according to a company filing: $10 million by June 1, followed by three payments of $5 million every 30 days after that.
- “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 and focus on serving our customers real food made with real ingredients that they can enjoy with confidence,” CEO Brian Niccol said in a statement.
That $25 million fine is the largest ever issued in a food safety case as part of the deferred prosecution agreement, according to the DOJ, something prosecuting attorneys said should highlight the necessity for restaurants to follow consistent food safety policies.
“Today’s steep penalty … should result in greater protections for Chipotle customers and remind others in the industry to review and improve their own health and safety practices,” U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said in a statement.
The FDA added that it will hold food companies accountable “when they endanger the public’s health by purveying adulterated food that causes outbreaks of illnesses.”
Among the charges lobbed against Chipotle were a failure to report information regarding an ill employee, food regulation violations concerning time or temperature controls for lettuce and beans, inadequate staffing and food safety training and employees who felt pressured to work while sick.
Prior to this settlement, Chipotle made progress on its food safety protocols. In a statement, Kerry Bridges, Chipotle's vice president of food safety, said the chain has reduced the number of employees who come into contact with ingredients, added safeguards to minimize the risk that an ingredient is undercooked, added “sophisticated microbiological testing” of raw ingredients before they’re shipped to restaurants and created an independent Food Safety Advisory Council to provide ongoing guidance. The chain has also deployed Zenput, a mobile platform that tracks operations to ensure no food safety steps are missed.
“Chipotle also traces the movement of each ingredient in our supply chain. If an ingredient does not meet our high standards, we can quickly determine when and where the problem occurred, and swiftly remove it before it enters our restaurants,” Bridges said.
It’s worth noting that Bridges is relatively new to the role. Chipotle’s previous head of food safety, James Marsden, retired in late 2018, after the company’s string of outbreaks had sickened hundreds of diners. At that time, Chipotle faced declines in consumer confidence and sales. The company also brought on CEO Brian Niccol in February 2018.
Since then, Chipotle seems to have earned back some favor among consumers, no doubt in part from its comprehensive food safety overhauls. Chipotle was voted America's favorite fast-casual Mexican restaurant in 2019, for example. Further, its stock value reached an all-time high just prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. The company has even received a vote of confidence from former FDA associate commissioner Dr. David Acheson, who said in a statement that the food safety advancements Chipotle has made are “industry leading and serve as a best-practice for the restaurant industry.”
Though the FDA and DOJ admits it is making an example of Chipotle to ensure other restaurants adhere to strict food safety protocols, Chipotle itself is ready to move on.
“We're ready to put this old matter behind us,” CFO Jack Hartung said during a Tuesday earnings call.