Florida: 4 confirmed sick from eating Chipotle

Posted at 8:28 PM, Feb 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-06 07:53:13-05

Chipotle is working to make its food safer after multiple outbreaks of food borne illness. The restaurant will close its doors for lunch Monday as it continues to focus on training its employees and rolling out new food safety initiatives. We found it took months to fix some issues in South Florida restaurants, which the restaurant says is not up to its standards. That's why the chain will now give restaurant managers an incentive to fix problems and pass inspections.

The Dirty Dining team looked at inspection reports for Chipotle restaurants from Vero Beach to Boca Raton. We found two restaurants caught the attention of state inspectors, and may now face possible fines for not fixing issues in time.

Despite making news headlines again and again as more outbreaks were reported, we found lines in South Florida Chipotle restaurants are still long. At a West Palm Beach location, the line was to the door three hours after the lunch hour.

"I love their tacos," explained Michael Rzegocki. "I think I am ok because it hasn't happened here."

The Consumer Watchdog found South Florida customers began complaining Chipotle made them sick after the outbreak. However, no cases of illness were confirmed by the state in South Florida.

"I think possibly maybe people didn't feel so well when they ate there where normally they wouldn't say anything but after looking at the reports on television they turned and reported illness," explained food safety expert Fred Stein, of Safe Food Connection.

Some of those customers never went to the doctor. It's difficult to confirm a food related illness without testing. Typically, more than one person becomes ill when there's a problem.

While nothing was discovered in South Florida, the state says four cases of illness were confirmed to be linked to Chipotle near Orlando. It's unclear what caused those customers to get sick.

After every complaint, the state does a follow-up inspection.

"I don't think about the back kitchen as much as I should," explained Rzegocki. "I don't check the inspection reports. I should but I don't."

We checked the reports for you. All those complaints had inspectors going back to Chipotle restaurants in our area time and time again. Some didn't fix issues for several months.

"Unfortunately from looking at the reports it seemed like it took quite a long time for those problems to be corrected," Stein said.

Inspectors went to the Wellington Chipotle (1000 S. State Route 7) on six different dates since late July. They finally met state inspection standards during the December inspection.

At the Port St. Lucie Chipotle (1768 SW St. Lucie West Blvd.) an inspector found a heavily stained cutting board that could no longer be cleaned. It was still in the restaurant two months later when the kitchen was cited by the state again. There were also issues with the temperature of some food in both inspections. The local inspector turned that case over to the state for a possible fine.

The Boca Raton Chipotle (9930 Glades Road) may also face a fine for not fixing violations in time.

"What a restaurant should do is correct the violations immediately. That's really to their benefit and the benefit of the public," Stein said.

Chipotle responded to our findings adding that these are not in line with their high expectations. They have a plan to address it.

Restaurants rely on inspections from the state, but some also do their own to make sure food and kitchens are consistently meeting standards.

"For 2016, we are increasing the frequency of audits of our restaurants for food safety and health issues and commissioning quarterly inspections from an independent third party. Fifty percent of our restaurant managers’ bonuses will be contingent on scores from those audits."

Now there will be a financial incentive for restaurant managers to keep the kitchens clean.

While there have been no confirmed cases in South Florida of food related illness tied to Chipotle, the Florida Department of Health says four cases of illness were confirmed at Orange County Chipotle restaurants. It's unclear what caused those issues.

To make sure there are no more food borne illness outbreaks, the restaurant is rolling out a new food safety plan.

"Most of the new protocols are already in place, thanks to the hard work and dedication of our excellent restaurant teams. Additionally, we have implemented unprecedented food safety standards with our suppliers, which make the food coming into our restaurants safer than ever before," explained Steve Ells, founder, chairman and co-CEO of Chipotle.

Chipotle will now prepare some items like tomatoes, lettuce, and cheese in off-site kitchens. Also, restaurants will blanch onions, avocados, and limes in the restaurant as well as marinate the chicken and steak in a new way to make sure it's safe.

Ingredients will also be subject to high resolution DNA testing to make sure they are safe when shipped to the Chipotle restaurants across the country. Chipotle says this testing far exceeds state and federal regulations as well as industry standards.

Employees will also get paid sick time so they don't work while sick.

Chipotle will go over these changes, some of which have already rolled out, on Monday. The chain will be closed for lunch and reopen at 3:00 PM.

While food safety will be a big topic, we found some South Florida restaurants don't have the required Florida food safety training. More than two months after the inspector brought that to the Chipotle's attention at 9930 Glades Road in Boca Raton, the restaurant was cited again.

"If that's not in place, people can get sick," Stein said.

"That's a problem right there especially with fast food. You are dealing with people's lives. You have to stay on top of that," explained customer Clemon Jones.

Something Chipotle fans believe the restaurant will do now that the chain is under the microscope.

Click here to see what inspectors found at your favorite Chipotle or other restaurant.