Chipotle Mexican Grill said Wednesday that it had been served a federal grand jury subpoena as part of a criminal investigation seeking information about a norovirus outbreak at a California restaurant.
The move could represent a highly unusual step by federal authorities, which generally have tended to focus on manufacturers or farmers, rather than restaurants, in investigations of food-borne illnesses, food safety experts said.
But it was unknown whether Chipotle was a target of the inquiry or whether it centered on some part of the food supply chain. Federal officials declined to comment.
The inquiry was yet another setback for Chipotle, which has been struggling to contain the damage to its sales and reputation from a series of food-related illnesses among customers and employees, including outbreaks of E. coli in other states in which it closed some restaurants, and, last month, a norovirus outbreak in Boston.
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Chipotle said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that news of additional food-related illnesses and outbreaks in the last several weeks of 2015 had caused a drop in sales in December alone of about 30 percent in stores that had been open more than a year. Its stock has tumbled since news of the outbreaks began.
The company declined to comment beyond the filing.
Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer representing plaintiffs in cases involving the California norovirus outbreak and others involving food contamination, said the federal inquiry was unusual.
“It’s perplexing, because I’ve never seen this before,” he said of the investigation, which so far seemed focused on only one Chipotle restaurant.
Two hundred and seven people, including 18 Chipotle employees, reported falling ill after eating at one of its restaurants in Simi Valley, Calif., in mid-August, according to Doug Beach, manager of the community services program at the Ventura County Environmental Health Division. He said that workers had closed and cleaned the restaurant, but did not notify his agency until after it reopened.
“I do not know why Chipotle chose not to tell us until everything was done,” he said, adding that restaurants typically contact the department as soon as they are aware of food-borne illness cases.
The subpoena was issued by the U.S. attorney’s office for the Central District of California in an inquiry it is conducting with the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations, Chipotle said in the filing. The subpoena seeks “a broad range of documents,” the filing said, although Chipotle did not say whether it was the target of the investigation.
“Whenever there’s an investigation of a target, many, many people who do business with that target get a subpoena,” said James F. Neale, a partner at the law firm McGuireWoods and co-author of “Food Safety Law.” “We’re just looking through a very limited keyhole.”
Representatives of the FDA and the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment.
Experts said it was unclear what might have prompted the inquiry. In the past, such investigations have been opened when contaminated food crosses state lines, Neale and Marler said, and typically center on food producers.
“It doesn’t look to me like this California outbreak goes beyond one restaurant,” Neale said. “We haven’t typically seen federal law enforcement activity for localized outbreaks.”
Norovirus was also at the center of an episode in which about 120 Boston College students reported getting sick in December after eating at a Chipotle restaurant near the campus.
The company had already been in the spotlight after various restaurants around the country reported outbreaks of E. coli bacteria. In early November, Chipotle voluntarily closed 43 restaurants in Washington state and Oregon because of an outbreak. The bacteria are common in the intestines of animals and people, but some strains can cause illness or even death.
Chipotle’s reputation – and sales – fell further the week of Dec. 21, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was investigating five new cases of E. coli reported in November.
All told, more than 500 people were sickened after eating in a Chipotle restaurant in the last half of 2015, according to Food Safety News.
Shares of Chipotle fell nearly 5 percent Wednesday, to close at $426.67. The stock had been trading above $700 a share in the summer.
Stephanie Strom contributed reporting.