Many people remember the foodborne illness scare surrounding Chipotle restaurants in 2015. At the time, the founder, Steve Ells, promised to update food safety policies. He even said that Chipotle would be the “safest place to eat.” But now, Chipotle employees are blowing the whistle on just how the restaurant’s food safety policies are faring.
Chipotle Employees Report Food Safety Problems
National Consumers League (NCL), a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, recently reported that Chipotle restaurants in New York City are not complying with food safety standards. The NCL interviewed 47 people who work at Chipotle, or have previously, in locations around New York City.
According to the employees, there are numerous problems in Chipotle restaurants stemming from managerial pressure and sub-par training. Employees report the following:
- Pressure from managers to work quickly in an effort to cut costs.
- Workers being told to complete their shifts even when sick.
- One worker reports being told to complete their shift after vomiting during it.
- Being “forced” to serve undercooked chicken to customers
- Using the same cutting boards to cut meat and vegetables.
- Working through breaks.
- Cleaning bathrooms without being provided with protective gear.
Chipotle employees report a great deal of pressure and managers who do not listen to concerns. They further report that managers use intimidation and retaliation if the employees speak up.
The NCL report notes that a lot of the pressure stems from managerial incentives and bonuses if they cut costs and increase production. Chipotle argues that the bonus infrastructure is for all employees and “cannot be earned without following food safety procedures.”
Chipotle’s History of Food Safety Problems and Foodborne Illness
In 2015, 2016 and 2018, Chipotle was the center of foodborne illness outbreaks. Norovirus sickened more than 100 students in Boston. E. Coli sickened numerous consumers in California, Illinois, Maryland and Minnesota.
Since then, the company has been trying to reestablish themselves. Their initiatives include marketing their products as fresh, healthy and safe to eat. The latter of which seems like it would not require advertising. In 2016, Chipotle officials launched the “enhanced food safety program.” This program includes:
- Preventative systems to ensure all food that enters the restaurant is clean and easy to trace.
- Wellness checks for all employees
- Hourly hand-washing breaks
- Extensive training for employees
These practices certainly seem to be a far cry from what Chipotle employees are saying is their experience. It also contradicts reports from the New York City Department of Health, which has issued Chipotle 260 critical citations between 2017 and 2019 across 74 restaurants in New York City. According to the report,
“Critical violation examples found by health inspectors include food left at dangerous temperatures that allow for the growth of pathogens, practices that allow for the contamination of ready-to-eat foods, evidence of various pests, and stores supervised by managers without a certificate in food protection. Just two weeks ago, the City cited a Chipotle restaurant where they found a crewmember working while ‘ill with a disease transmissible by food or[an] exposed infected cut or burn on [their] hand’.”
Chipotle Defends Food Safety Program
The company, however, continues to stand by its food safety procedures. Chief Reputation Officer, Laurie Schalow, told TODAY that,
“We are proud of our industry leading food safety practices and we are committed to a culture of food safety in our restaurants where employees are supported and heard. Chipotle’s engaged and hard-working employees are what makes us great, and we encourage our employees to contact us immediately, including through an anonymous 800 number, with any concerns so we can investigate and respond quickly to make things right.”
After the NCL report, the chairman of the Public Health Committee announced a public hearing. At the hearing, employees, consumers and Chipotle officials will have the opportunity to engage in conversation about the situation.
NCL Report Falls on the Heels of $1.3 Million Child Labor Fine
Food safety issues are not the only problems that Chipotle is facing. In January 2020, the company was fined $1.3 million due to child labor violations. Investigators found more than 13,000 violations across restaurants in Massachusetts. According to reports:
- Chipotle restaurants hired minors without work permits.
- The restaurants routinely kept employees under age 18 at work past midnight.
- Employees under age 18 report working more than 48 hours per week.
- Employers granted paid sick leave only for certain illnesses.
- The restaurants did not keep accurate records.
- Employers were not paying timely wages.
While not directly related to the food safety problems the company is facing, these violations reinforce company-wide problems that impact safety in Chipotle restaurants. It seems that consumers and employees both may be at risk. Certainly reason for concern among consumers at a time when widespread illness is at the forefront of headlines.