Chipotle Mexican Grill is paying a $25 million fine to resolve criminal charges stemming from food poisoning outbreaks that sickened 1,100 people between 2015 and 2018. The Newport Beach, California-based company was charged in federal court in Los Angeles with violating the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Chipotle agreed to pay the fine -the largest ever associated with a food safety case, as part of a three-year deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) that will allow the company to avoid conviction if it complies with an improved food safety program.

The criminal charges stem from five norovirus outbreaks linked to Chipotle restaurants in the Los Angeles area, Boston, Virginia, and Ohio between 2015 and 2018. Norovirus is highly contagious. Symptoms of an infection include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps.

The source of these outbreaks was associated with the failure of employees to follow food safety protocols requiring sick employees to stay home from work. According to court documents, Chipotle employees reported inadequate food safety training and staffing. They also reported pressure to work when sick even though it was against company policy.

For example, in December 2015, a norovirus outbreak at Chipotle restaurant in Boston sickened 141 people. According to court documents, that outbreak likely resulted from an apprentice manager who was ordered to continue working after vomiting in the restaurant. Two days later, that same employee helped to box up a catering order for a Boston College basketball team. Several members of the team were among those sickened in the outbreak.

In agreeing to the DPA, Chipotle committed to developing an improved food safety program and to work with its Food Safety Council to assess staffing, training audits and other food safety issues.

“Chipotle failed to ensure that its employees both understood and complied with its food safety protocols, resulting in hundreds of customers across the country getting sick,” U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna for the Central District of California said in a statement. “Today’s steep penalty, coupled with the tens of millions of dollars Chipotle already has spent to upgrade its food safety program since 2015, should result in greater protections for Chipotle customers and remind others in the industry to review and improve their own health and safety practices.”

Chipotle sign