Chipotle said it has been subpoenaed as part of a federal criminal investigation and that sales plummeted 30 percent in December after a series of food scares at its restaurants.
The company said in a regulatory filing it was asked to produce a broad range of documents tied to a norovirus outbreak this summer at its restaurant in Simi Valley, California, but declined to provide further details.
It said the investigation does not involve a more recent E. coli outbreak tied to its restaurants or a separate norovirus outbreak in Boston.
The investigation is being conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California with the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission Wednesday.
Representatives for the U.S. Attorney’s office and the FDA declined to comment.
The disclosure of the investigation comes as Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. reels from E. coli outbreaks in late October and November, which were followed by the sickening of customers at a restaurant in Boston in early December. Those cases received far more national media attention than the California incident, and the company’s sales have since plunged.
Sales fell 14.6 percent in the fourth quarter, marking the first decline for the Denver company since it went public in 2006.
Last month, Chipotle also said it could no longer reasonably predict sales trends given the food scares and retracted its forecast for 2016.
In its regulatory filing Wednesday, the company said it could not determine or predict the amount of any “fines, penalties or further liabilities” it might face in connection with the federal investigation.
A Chipotle spokesman, Chris Arnold, said the company intends to cooperate fully with the investigation.
Doug Beach, a manager of the food program at Ventura County’s Environmental Health Division, said the FDA approached the county about its local investigation in September or October, then followed up with a phone call with the U.S. Attorney’s office in October or November.
Beach said the U.S. Attorney’s office then requested the county’s records on the Chipotle case.
“That was a first for us,” Beach said in a phone interview.
Beach also noted that Chipotle had not contacted the county about the illnesses until Saturday Aug. 21, after it had shut down the restaurant in Simi Valley for sanitation and reopened it. Beach said he believed the company was aware of sick employees the previous Tuesday.
According to a county inspection report, the area manager for Chipotle said the company got its first customer complaint about an illness on Aug. 20.
The emergence of a criminal investigation after a norovirus outbreak is unusual, said Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer representing Chipotle customers who were sickened in Simi Valley.
Marler said he didn’t understand why the U.S. Attorney’s office would have jurisdiction over an outbreak that was caused by a sick worker at a single restaurant. He noted that the FDA would normally not get involved in such cases.
“I’m scratching my head about it,” he said.
Stuart Pape, an attorney at Polsinelli who specializes in food regulatory matters, noted Chipotle is under heightened scrutiny as a result of its string of food scares.
“They’ve got the FDA all over them, they’ve got the CDC all over them, and now they’ve got the Justice Department all over them,” Pape said.
To rehabilitate its image, Chipotle has taken out full-page ads apologizing to customers in dozens of newspapers around the country. It also vowed changes to step up food safety at its restaurants, in part by tweaking its cooking methods and increasing testing of meat and produce.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
With the FDA, the CDC and the Justice Department “investigating” Chipole, much more than 2 cases of questionable food poisoning is involved. Which manager of Chipole posted an critical comment about the alias, BHObama, or Hitlery Clinton on the internet? Perhaps declined someones request to contribute to a USGov politician´s campaign? Reminds of the Lois Lerner subterfuge.
It is a wonder that the USA has NOT HAD A MULTITUDE of illnesses all over the USA, when we have a pretend foreign President NOT securing the US Border in violation of His Oath of Office and NOT discharging the duties of the Office of US President by ignoring the Constitution and ALL OBLIGATIONS OF THE OVAL OFFICE for his own agenda of treason. Congress has not performed their duties, by allowing Obama to commit TREASON. ILLEGAL ALIENS who do not go through the legal and trained U.S. Dept. of Immigration, have had no medical clearance, criminal background check, and possibly no food preparation training. Hiring in the drive-through eateries, has not only made communications more difficult, but can transfer communicable diseases to a large segment of customers, day after day. We decided to check the hirings at our favorite places, and adjust our menus on eating out. .
With so many different incoming strangers to America, we find dangerous drivers, who do not know to drive the speed limits, both faster and slower, the fast lane is not the slow lane, pull up to the clicker in the pavement close to the crosswalk, so that our lane is not skipped in the cycle of the traffic lights, and you can turn right on a red light, if no one is approaching you, and the coast is clear, without a sign saying NO Turning on a Red Light. If you will be turning RIGHT into a business ahead, please, plan your trip by driving in the right lane ahead of time, NOT when you need to cross over 3 lanes and crowd ahead of drivers to turn into the business’s parking lot, last minute. The Dept. of Driver’s Licensing needs to check ALL immigrants before issuing a state driver’s license. Please, it will make for many more pleasant driving days. When a teenager, driving his father’s big Car,
hits your car, and gets out and loudly speaking ” No speaking the English.” Take a picture of him beside his car, call 911, and
He will suddenly remember some English. words. And YES, We Have been patient during a complete collapse of the Oval Office
and the distortion of Our America Values, Manners, and Constitution of The U.S. Citizens.