Investigation Shows Chipotle Norovirus Outbreak Probably Caused By Sick Employee

Image courtesy of Mike Mozart

After its food safety crisis in 2015 and 2016, Chipotle implemented new procedures, including everything from blanching produce to shutting down and sanitizing a restaurant if anyone, employee or customer, vomits inside. The problem, it turns out, is that it doesn’t matter how good your protocols are if stores don’t actually follow them.

Or, as Chipotle’s founder and CEO Steve Ells put it during the company’s quarterly conference call with investors, “We know that our procedures work when executed properly, but compliance in each restaurant is essential.”

Another outbreak

The outbreak of norovirus in a Virginia restaurant led to more bad publicity just as Chipotle seemed to have recovered from the food safety crisis, which began on Halloween in 2015. After two cases of the disease were confirmed by laboratory testing out of at least 135 people who may have been affected, Chipotle’s leaders explained how another outbreak happened.

Working while sick, probably

“We conducted a thorough investigation and it revealed that our leadership there didn’t strictly adhere to our company protocols,” CEO Ells said in response to an analyst’s question during yesterday’s quarterly earnings call.

Specifically, Ells said, the company believes that an employee was working while sick, and spread the highly contagious norovirus to customers while, say, preparing food or handling money.

Norovirus is the scourge of cruise ships, hospitals, nursing homes, and restaurants, because it spreads so easily and the virus itself is difficult to kill. Yet at least this reassures Chipotle customers that the problem wasn’t in the food itself, and is unlikely to turn up in other restaurants, as the still-mysterious E. coli outbreak did.

About those protocols…

CNBC spoke to current front-line Chipotle employees who weren’t identified for obvious reasons, who told the network that their managers don’t follow the new sick leave policy, and other parts of the new food safety procedures are only observed when a food safety auditor is present.

The policy is supposed to be that employees get paid sick leave so they aren’t financially incentivized to work while sick, especially if they have signs of a possible foodborne illness like a fever, vomiting, or diarrhea. On the ground, this policy reportedly isn’t being observed.

“My boss has told me that I have no option but to come in tomorrow, and it’s been heavily implied that my job will be in jeopardy if I don’t come in,” one purported worker posted on Reddit. He later told CNBC, “I’ve since had one of my managers tell us that they only abide by the sick policy about 40 percent of the time.”

Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold told Consumerist that if employees worked sick, that’s a violation of the company’s policies, which include an employee wellness screening, meant to screen them for potentially contagious illnesses. “If they are symptomatic, they are excused from work and held out until they are feeling better,” he explained. “That is the kind of thing our policies cover, and the allegations in the CNBC story would represent very clear violations to those policies.”