Health

Chipotle Tried To Cover Up Foodborne Illness Outbreak, Lawsuit Claims

CREDIT: AP Photo/Stephen Brashear

A Chipotle Mexican Grill employee prepares food

A group of students filed a class-action lawsuit this week against Chipotle for covering up signs of a foodborne illness outbreak in its Simi Valley, California stores.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of six minor students from Grace Brethren School and the school’s cheerleading coach Mia Phillips, who were sickened after eating at the Simi Valley Chipotle in August.

According to the complaint, the restaurant’s kitchen manager was allowed to work and handle food for at least two days, despite having gastrointestinal symptoms.

The alleged cover-up happened August 20, the day the kitchen manager was then diagnosed with a norovirus infection and told not to return to work and two days after showing symptoms, the lawsuit stated.

After several illness complaints from customers, the plaintiffs said Chipotle launched a food safety campaign called the “Norwalk Protocol,” which focused on preventing the spread of the norovirus or norwalk virus, instead of alerting the local health department of a potential outbreak. Nearly 300 people reported getting sick after eating at the Simi Valley restaurant.

The lawsuit alleges the Chipotle manager closed the restaurant, citing a staffing shortage, but did so in an attempt to implement the “Norwalk Protocol” and conceal a potential outbreak.

Instead of telling customers the truth, Plaintiffs are informed and believe that Chipotle’s Area Manager, Scotty Shadix, told Eric Rose and his neighbors who went to the Chipotle Simi Valley restaurant on Thursday, August 20, 2015 to complain they had become sick from eating food purchased during the previous two days that there was no problem with their food and the restaurant was closed due to a “staffing shortage.”

Instead of admitting there had been a foodborne illness outbreak, Chipotle’s Area Manager gave Mr. Rose his business card with a handwritten note on it saying “1 Free Entrée @ Simi Valley only.”

Based on the complaint, a Chipotle official contacted Ventura County’s health department two days after launching the alleged clean-up campaign. The food program manager with the county’s Environmental Health Division Doug Beach told the Ventura County Star the department wasn’t able to do a proper investigation because everything had been cleaned up by the time it was alerted to the problem

“Because they had already shut the restaurant down, thrown out all the food, completely cleaned the place up, went top to bottom with bleach, and brought in a new staff, we didn’t have any opportunity to sample food or do some of the things we normally do to investigate a foodborne outbreak,” Beach said. “Had we known earlier, we potentially could have prevented more people from getting sick.”

News of the lawsuit comes days after Chipotle announced all of its restaurants would close February 8 for nationwide food safety training in light of the company’s months-long bout with E. Coli, Salmonella, and norovirus outbreaks.

More than 200 people reported getting sick after eating at the Simi Valley restaurant, outbreaks of E. coli spread nationwide, and Chipotle restaurants in Minnesota struggled with a statewide Salmonella outbreak. Federal health authorities have already launched investigations into the E. coli cases, and the Justice Department initiated a probe into California’s norovirus outbreak.

Chipotle hasn’t made public comments regarding the lawsuit.