Chipotle’s Mounting Woes Now Include a Federal Criminal Investigation

A California norovirus outbreak is being looked into by the feds.
(Photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
Jan 6, 2016· 2 MIN READ· 0 COMMENTS
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The fallout from Chipotle’s multiple outbreaks of food-borne illness took an unexpected turn on Wednesday when news broke that a norovirus incident in Simi Valley, California, had spurred a federal criminal investigation.

Numerous lawsuits have been filed against the chain, which was also linked to cases of salmonella and E. coli last year that have yet to be linked with any deaths. But while Chipotle has worked closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track the outbreaks, there were no signs of a criminal investigation before the company disclosed the subpoena in a Securities and Exchange Commission report filed on Wednesday. Typically, it is farmers and food manufacturers, not local chains, that are investigated by federal agencies.

“I have been doing these kinds of cases for 23 years now, and I do not recall a federal investigation of any sort into a one-restaurant outbreak of any kind,” Bill Marler, a prominent food-safety lawyer who is representing victims of Chipotle’s recent outbreaks, said in an interview. “And I don’t even recall a federal investigation of a restaurant chain that’s involved in any kind of criminal investigation” following an outbreak of food-borne illness, he said. Marler, who got his start representing victims of Jack in the Box’s 1993 E. coli outbreak, said that even then there was no criminal investigation—federal or local. The infamous case killed four children, and some of the 178 survivors who experienced permanent injuries are still coping with brain and kidney damage.

Still, it is neither unheard of nor uncommon for federal criminal charges to be pursued in the wake of a food-safety scandal. Charges were filed following the 2011 listeria outbreak, during which contaminated cantaloupes from a Colorado farm killed more than 33 people. A 2008 salmonella outbreak caused by tainted peanut butter led to nine deaths and sickened 714 people; in 2014, three people tied to the Peanut Corporation of America were found guilty on a host of felony charges, while the two primary defendants face years of jail time when they’re sentenced in July. The Blue Bell ice cream listeria outbreak killed three people, and the company is being investigated by the Justice Department.

But in all of those instances it was a farmer or a food manufacturer that sent contaminated products across state lines (thus making it a federal issue) that was charged.

All of which led Marler to use a “legal term,” as he called it, to describe the federal investigation into the Simi Valley outbreak: “weird.”

Details are thin at this point, with Chipotle revealing minimal details in its SEC report. The subpoena required the chain to provide investigators with “a broad range of documents related to a Chipotle restaurant in Simi Valley, California, that experienced an isolated norovirus incident during August 2015.” That outbreak sickened at least 234 people.

Chipotle did not answer questions regarding the involvement of the feds in the investigation. Chris Arnold, the chain’s communications director, wrote in an email, “As a matter of policy, we do not discuss details surrounding pending legal action. We will cooperate fully as the investigation moves forward.”

The lack of transparency has left Marler, who said he is in touch with Chipotle lawyers daily, grasping at possible reasons for the investigation. “The only thing I can think of is maybe there’s a problem in their workers—like their workers weren’t legal,” he said. “Or, secondly, the feds are looking into communications between Chipotle’s management and corporate headquarters in Colorado and the interstate wires—maybe that invokes federal jurisdiction.”

All Marler could say for sure is that news of the investigation is “raising enormous questions in the minds of my clients.”

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