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Chipotle to pay $25 million to settle criminal charges linked to norovirus outbreaks

Newport Beach, California (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 said 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.

Chipotle confirmed the agreement in a statement Tuesday and said that it has ramped up safety measures to ensure similar incidents won't happen again. 

"Over the last four years, we instituted several enhancements to our food preparation and food handling practices to lower the risk of foodborne illnesses," Kerry Bridges, the vice president of food safety, said in a company statement. "These measures include reducing the number of employees who come into contact with ingredients, safeguards to minimize the risk that an ingredient is undercooked, and sophisticated microbiological testing of raw ingredients to help ensure quality and safety before they are shipped to restaurants."

"Chipotle is committed to doing the right thing for our customers and employees," chairman and CEO Brian Niccol said in the same statement. "We look forward to continuing to provide a great experience for our customers while closing one chapter on the past. We are confident in the additional safeguards we have put in place to ensure the health and safety of our customers and employees."

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