Chipotle faces criminal probe over norovirus outbreak

NEW YORK - Chipotle (CMG) faces mounting legal trouble related to incidents of contaminated food.

The restaurant chain said Wednesday it has been served with a federal grand jury subpoena as part of a criminal investigation tied to a norovirus outbreak this summer at one of its restaurants in California.

The investigation is being conducted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California in conjunction with the Food and Drug Administration, the company said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission Wednesday.

A Chipotle spokesman, Chris Arnold, said in an email the company does not discuss pending litigation, but that it intends to cooperate fully with the investigation.

In a regulatory filing, Chipotle said that in early December novovirus was discovered at one of its locations in Brighton, Massachusetts. At least 141 Boston College students got sick after eating at the restaurant.That followed E. coli incidents linked to several Chipotle restaurants in October and November.

The company says the subpoena requires it to produce a "broad range" of documents.

Norovirus can be transmitted by eating contaminated food, or by touching infected surfaces, then putting your fingers in your mouth. The best way to stop norovirus is to wash your hands, especially after using the bathroom and changing diapers, but also before eating and when preparing food.

Chipotle sales have plunged following reports of customers getting ill. The company, which says in the filing that the contaminated food outbreaks will affect its financial results, expects sales for the fourth quarter to be down 14.6 percent, which would mark the first decline since the company went public in 2006.

Shares of the company, which have fallen sharply since October, were down 1.7 percent to $440.88 in early trading.

Chipotle founder and co-CEO Steve Ells apologized last month for the E. coli outbreak, which sickened people in nine states. The company has pledged to tighten food safety procedures to prevent further such incidents. To rehabilitate its image, Chipotle also has taken out full-page ads apologizing to customers in dozens of newspapers around the country.