Chipotle boasts of food safety culture during the coronavirus pandemic as it pays out $25 million fine for food poisoning-related crimes from 2015-2018
Chipotle agreed to pay a $25 million fine to resolve criminal charges related to food poisoning outbreaks that sickened more than 1,100 people from 2015 to 2018.
The burrito chain recently said that its "food safety culture" is an advantage during the coronavirus pandemic.
US Attorney Nick Hanna for the Central District of California said Chipotle has already spent "tens of millions of dollars" improving its food safety program, with policies such as wellness checks, trained nurses who evaluate sick workers, and air purification systems.
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The Department of Justice announced on Tuesday that Chipotle had agreed to pay a $25 million fine to resolve criminal charges related to food poisoning outbreaks that sickened more than 1,100 people from 2015 to 2018.
The same day, the burrito chain said in an earnings call said that its "food safety culture" is an advantage during the coronavirus pandemic.
"At Chipotle, food safety is more than a collection of programs and processes. It's part of our DNA," CEO Brian Niccol said on a call with investors on Tuesday. "We have a culture of continuous improvement, in which we regularly evaluate our processes to ensure that our customers have consistently excellent experiences."
Niccol said over the past few years, Chipotle has rolled out policies such as wellness checks, trained nurses that can evaluate sick workers, air purification systems, and improved internal training. The company also has a third-party consultant perform regular inspections of restaurants and created an independent food safety advisory council.
While the initial outbreak occurred in 2015, the DOJ said that Chipotle's failure to ensure employees understood and followed food safety protocols caused hundreds of customers to get sick through 2018.
In July 2018, roughly 647 people got sick after dining at a Chipotle in Powell, Ohio, from an illness related to a pathogen that grows rapidly when food is not held at appropriate temperatures. Chipotle workers also reported inadequate staffing and training, as well as pressure to work while sick, from 2015 to 2018.
While Chipotle began making changes to its food safety program soon after the first E. coli outbreak hit the chain, the company has struggled to improve its reputation. As of 2018 — before the July outbreak in Ohio — a quarter of people who said they were eating at Chipotle less said they were avoiding the chain due to food safety concerns, according to a UBS survey.
Restaurant consultant Tim Powell told Nation's Restaurant News this week that it typically takes a generation to reduce or erase the stigma of a major food safety scandal.
"Their most loyal followers will shrug this [fine] off, while lapsed or aware non-users may still think twice," Powell said.