Chipotle Criminal Investigation: Restaurant Served Federal Subpoena Over Norovirus Outbreak, Sales Plunge

The Chipotle Mexican Grill is under criminal investigation for the norovirus outbreak at one of its California restaurants. Chipotle was served a federal subpoena as the company is still reeling from recent E. coli outbreaks across their chains. The investigation into the California Chipotle is being performed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California along with the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations.

Chipotle Mexican Grill employee prepares a burrito for a customer. [Photo by Stephen Brashear/AP, File]

The Daily Mail reports that Chipotle Mexican Grill’s bottom line is suffering following recent norovirus and E. coli outbreaks linked to their restaurants. However, it isn’t just skeptical customers that Chipotle has to deal with regarding the restaurant’s commitment to food safety. Chipotle now has to deal with a federal investigation into one of its California stores linked to a norovirus outbreak in August. Chipotle received a federal subpoena in December regarding the norovirus at the Simi Valley, California, location.

According to a filing by Chipotle with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the investigation into the restaurant is being carried out by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California in conjunction with the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations. The subpoena requires that Chipotle release a series of documents regarding the Simi Valley restaurant where a norovirus outbreak occurred in August.

Although the norovirus outbreak is being criminally investigated on a federal level, it was the E. coli outbreak linked to the restaurant that received much of the negative media attention. The California norovirus outbreak occurred in August of 2015 and was quickly followed by the E. coli outbreaks in October and November that occurred in multiple Chipotle restaurants. A second norovirus outbreak linked to a Boston Chipotle was also revealed in December. With so many food safety issues in such a short period of time, it is no wonder that Chipotle’s financial numbers are plunging.

Fox News reports that Chipotle’s sales dropped 30 percent in December. The company says they expect the trend to continue into January, with Chipotle expecting sales to fall 14.6 percent at established locations for the full fourth quarter. This would mark the first decline since the company went public in 2006. To combat the negative publicity regarding the norovirus outbreaks and E. coli, Chipotle has taken to the media to apologize for the outbreaks and reveal a number of steps the company is taking to ensure outbreaks such as these do not happen again.

Chipotle isn’t the first restaurant to be damaged by an E. coli or norovirus outbreak. However, RBC Capital Market analyst David Palmer says that things may be worse for Chipotle because it marketed itself as a business that focused on food quality. With a slogan of “Food with Integrity,” customers may have placed a higher standard on Chipotle and may be less likely to forgive. Palmer also notes that with social media use continuing to increase, customers are now more aware of food safety issues than in the past, and it may make Chipotle’s comeback all the more difficult.

However, it seems that Chipotle is making efforts to win back customers by offering a “comprehensive food safety plan.” The plan was revealed by Chipotle founder Steve Ells, in which he notes that the restaurant could do better and they plan to do so moving forward.

“Recent incidents, an E. coli outbreak that sickened 52 people and a norovirus outbreak that sickened approximately 140 people at a single Chipotle restaurant in Boston, have shown us that we need to do better, much better. The fact that anyone has become ill eating at Chipotle is completely unacceptable to me and I am deeply sorry. As a result, we are committed to becoming known as the leader in food safety, just as we are known for using the very best ingredients in a fast food setting.”

Ells then outlines some of the measures Chipotle will be taking to pave the way for the company as a food safety leader. For example, Ells says that food handlers will blanch many fresh produce items –submerging them in boiling water for three to five seconds — to help sanitize these ingredients before being prepared.

What do you think of the criminal investigation into the Chipotle norovirus outbreak in California? What about Steve Ells response to the food safety concerns?

[Image via AP]