When a series of foodborne illness scares forced Chipotle stores to adapt upgraded food-handling procedures in 2015, the burrito chain's founder Steve Ells declared that his restaurants would soon "be the safest place to eat."
Five years later, however, nearly 50 current and former Chipotle employees based in New York have said current managerial practices are putting proper food safety procedures on the back burner and consumers may be at risk.
On Thursday, the nonprofit consumer advocacy group National Consumers League published a report about New York City-based Chipotles failing to comply with food safety standards. The NCL's executive director Sally Greenberg, who co-authored the report, told TODAY Food the league interviewed 47 current and former workers throughout 2019 at 25 locations around the city.
Many of the employees said they received sub-par training and often felt pressure from management to work quickly and cut costs, even if it compromised food safety.
Complaints ranged from pressure to work even when they felt sick (including one person who alleged that they vomited during their shift but still had to work), being forced to serve undercooked chicken to customers, using the same cutting boards to cut raw meat and vegetables during rush hour times, working through breaks and having to clean bathrooms without "proper protection equipment."
“We chose to blow the whistle on these practices and abuses because our Chipotle managers did not listen to us,” Jeremy Espinal, a Chipotle worker, said. “It’s a pressure-packed workplace where supervisors intimidate you and retaliate against you.”
While the report stated many of these pressures stemmed from managerial incentives to make bonuses for cutting costs and increased production, Chipotle's chief reputation officer Laurie Schalow told TODAY the quarterly bonus infrastructure is for all employees (not just managers) and cannot be earned without following food safety procedures.
Following nationwide outbreaks of foodborne illnesses in 2015, 2016 and 2018, Chipotle has been working hard to climb back into its customers good graces (minus a few National Avocado Day flops) with initiatives marketing its food as fresh, healthy and, most importantly, safe to eat.
In 2016, Chipotle created an "enhanced food safety program" that, according to a company spokesperson, includes preventative systems to ensure all food shipped to restaurants is clean and easily traced; wellness checks for employees when they clock-in, hourly hand-washing breaks, plus, extensive training.
Schalow stands by the company's progress in food safety.
"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," Schalow said. "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."
In addition to employee interviews, the report included information from the New York City Department of Health, which cited the chain with 260 critical violations between 2017 and 2019 at 74 New York City restaurants.
"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'," the report read.
The chairman of the city's Public Health Committee, council member Mark Levine said he would host a public hearing where consumers, employees and the company itself could "engage" in a conversation about the reports. A date for the hearing is forthcoming.
The NCL's report comes on the heels of news that Chipotle was recently found to have violated thousands of child-labor laws in Massachusetts.