A federal grand jury has slapped Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. with a subpoena as part of a broader criminal investigation into the restaurant chain’s food safety mishaps, most recently an outbreak of norovirus at a location in Sterling, VA last week.
Since 2015 food safety has proved problematic for Chipotle. The U.S. attorney’s office for the Central District of California and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations is looking into the recent outbreak, which sickened more than 100 people and put several in the hospital, as well as similar outbreaks of norovirus at a location in Simi Valley, CA in August 2015 and Boston in December 2015, along with more publicized e-Coli outbreak that sickened more than 50 people in 12 states in two separate outbreaks in 2015.
The highly contagious norovirus causes stomachaches, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting that can range from mild to lethal.
Chipotle’s food safety problems actually date back to a March 2008 hepatitis A outbreak traced to a single Chipotle restaurant in La Mesa, CA in which 22 customers were infected with the virus. In April 2008, more than 400 people in Kent, OH became ill with norovirus — Chipotle was implicated in the outbreak but the actual initial source was never found.
In February 2009, an investigation by the Minnesota Department of Health traced an outbreak of campylobacteriosis to a Chipotle in Apple Valley, MN. In August 2015 Minnesota health officials confirmed a Salmonella outbreak that affected 22 Minneapolis-area Chipotle restaurants in mid-August 2015 and made 64 people sick.
The subpoena is not in itself a criminal charge – it simply means prosecutors are collecting evidence for non-specified charges to potentially present to a grand jury, which will decide whether or not an indictment is warranted.
Chipotle said in a filing with the court that it will cooperate fully with authorities, adding, “It is not possible at this time to determine whether we will incur, or to reasonably estimate the amount of, any fines or penalties in connection with the investigation pursuant to which the subpoena was issued.”