“It is almost always the cover-up rather than the event that causes trouble.” -Howard Baker, Republican of Tennessee

California law is pretty clear. The state has  a mandatory notification requirement for the manager or person-in-charge of a food establishment to immediately file a report with the local environmental health agency if any employee is known to be ill with E. coli O157”H7, Salmonella, Shigella, Hepatitis A, Norovirus, Entamoeba histolytic or any other illness that is transmittable through food. simichipotle_406x250This is interesting because federal prosecutors have named Chipotle Mexican Grill as the target of a federal criminal investigation over the Simi Valley outbreak.  Some have questioned how Chipotle could run afoul of federal law over a local Norovirus outbreak involving only one outlet. The answer to those questions  may come in how the Department of Justice’s consumer division and U.S. attorneys around the country have been approaching cases where food safety has been criminally breached. We have now seen it repeatedly – charges of fraud and conspiracy, obstruction of justice and the like precede charges involving the food violations. Food Safety News was, on Dec. 16, 2015, the first to report on the fact that Chipotle’s Simi Valley outbreak of Norovirus was far larger than originally thought with, at least, 234 victims. We learned from Ventura County’s official chronology compiled by the Resource Management Agency that the outbreak was fist reported by the father of a sickened student at 9:36 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015. The report came in the form of an email to a county executive office. That was the very day the Simi Valley Chipotle was unexpectedly closed. The email did not reach the county’s environmental health division until the following Friday afternoon, Aug. 21, 2015. It was not until Saturday, Aug. 22 that the Chipotle corporate office left a voice mail for local health officials, informing the county that 17 employees at its Simi Valley outlet were ill. Howard Baker did know about cover-ups, but his most famous uttering was: ” What did the President know and when did he know it?”  In this case, the question is “what did corporate Chipotle know and when did they know it?” Rather than contacting the local health department, the fast casual restaurant followed its “corporate policy” to initiate the “Norwalk Protocol” after two or more customers complain of food borne illness. Thus, by initiating the ‘Norwalk Protocol’ on Thursday, August 20, 2015, Chipotle knew it was highly likely that a Norovirus outbreak had occurred at its Simi Valley restaurant earlier that week. However, rather than immediately contacting the Ventura County Public Health Division to notify health officials and its customers of this foodborne illness outbreak, Chipotle chose instead to try and conceal all evidence of the outbreak by disposing of all food items, bleaching all cooking and food handling surfaces and replacing its sick employees with replacement employees from other restaurants before notifying county health officials of the outbreak. CZRNN-rVAAE0uUtThe restaurant was closed on Aug. 20, and an area manger put a sign on the door blaming “severe staffing shortage.” In other words, instead of complying with California law and reporting an employee illness on Aug. 18, the company that advertises “food with integrity” waited four more days until it had 17 sick food workers before it left health officials a phone message.   In the meantime, it served about 3,000 meals to unsuspecting customers. There is not a lot of integrity in that. Ventura County health inspectors did not arrive at the Simi Valley Chipotle until Monday, Aug 24 after the restaurant had been bleached from “top to bottom” and all the food thrown out. Still the inspection found a half dozen serious violations.  Stool samples taken in the following week still came back positive for nine still hot Chipotle employees. The trouble of course with cover-ups is that it is almost impossible to be successful in one unless parties conspire to break the law.  Every phone call and email can end up being the basis for another count. Every fib told to the FBI is an obstruction of justice charge, and each of those is good for another five years in an orange jumpsuit. This one is going to be interesting.   (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)