Major fast food chain Chipotle Mexican Grill is facing serious trouble resulting from several outbreaks of foodborne illness that began in July of 2015. Chipotle is currently under criminal investigation related to a norovirus contamination at the Simi Valley restaurant and recently was accused of concealing foodborne illness outbreaks before contacting public health officials in a class-action lawsuit. The company's sales have plummeted over the past two months, and it now expects a loss in the first quarter as opposed to the originally predicted break-even quarter.
A multi-state E. coli outbreak attributed to Chipotle drew media scrutiny in October, but outbreaks have occurred since July, when an E. coli contamination connected to a Chipotle in Seattle sickened 5 people. In August, a norovirus outbreak linked to a Simi Valley Chipotle affected at least 200 people, and a salmonella outbreak hit 64 individuals at a location in Minnesota later that month.
The October outbreaks occurred in states across the country, affecting at least 52 people. In December, more than 130 people became ill due to a norovirus outbreak in Boston, including at least 80 Boston College students. The same month, the company took out full-page ads in major newspapers apologizing, and recently began handing out mass amounts of coupons for free burritos. Despite the company's efforts, customers have been slow to return and sales continue to be weak.
The civil suit accuses the Simi Valley location of hiding the August norovirus contamination instead of alerting authorities. The suit alleges an employee exhibiting norovirus symptoms continued to work until officially diagnosed, and that the restaurant closed under the premise of being short staffed. Additionally, the lawsuit alleges employees hid evidence by disposing food items, bleaching food surfaces, and replacing sick employees with employees from other locations, which prevented health officials from conducting a proper investigation.