Chipotle responds to Richmond-area health department citations

RICHMOND, Va. -- Their reasons may vary for why, but numerous people we talked to share something in common: they love dining at Chipotle.

Customers described various reasons for staying faithful to the fast-Mexican chain.

"Flavor, how quick they are," Chipotle customer Rima Moukaled said.

"The freshness, and it's healthy," Scott Shaw added.

Customers love the brand so much that despite a 2015 e. coli outbreak, which sickened at least 60 customers in 14 states, and a July incident in Ohio where roughly 650 customers got sick, they're still eating Chipotle.

"I thought it had been resolved," Moukaled said.

But has it?

In the Ohio incident, investigators found the bacteria that sickened customers, Clostridium perfringens, which multiplies when food is not stored at the proper temperature.

"Usually adhering to strict temperature control requirements can minimize the risk of infection with most bacterial pathogens," Dr. Michael Donnenberg, a Professor of Internal Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases, School of Medicine at VCU, said.

Yet the CBS 6 Problem Solvers found that seven Chipotles in Henrico and Chesterfield counties were recently cited by health inspectors for violations involving temperature.

"On page after page we see instances of one item or another wasn't hot enough or cold enough," Dr. Donnenberg said.

"Do you find this concerning at all?" CBS 6 Problem Solver Melissa Hipolit asked Donnenberg.

"Yes, very much," Donnenberg replied. "It's a food chain and they have violations that cross many different restaurants. I think consumers need to know that."

Back in June at the Chipotle on Rittenhouse Drive in Midlothian, inspectors found a number of food items, including sour cream, lettuce, and red salsa, stored at a temperature above what is considered safe.

"Do you see anything on here that you get?" Hipolit asked Shaw.

"Everything, it looks like everything they have basically," Shaw said.

In fact, the avocados measured a temperature 15 degrees above what it should be.

"I appreciate you informing me," Shaw said. "It's definitely making me think twice. I don't think I'm going to go in here today, wow."

And, back in March at the Chipotle on Forest Avenue in Henrico, inspectors observed lettuce and cheese at temperatures above safe levels, as well as steaks much colder than they should have been in the hot-hold unit.

We asked Donnenberg why state health inspectors may have found so many temperature issues with food at local Chipotles.

"Corners can get cut sometimes or mistakes can happen in a process when it's really under the pressure of rapid production," Donnenberg said.

"Do you think it's possible for a big chain to actually do a good job with food safety?" Hipolit asked.

"Just like the state health department has inspectors, the chain can have inspectors too. It can go from restaurant to restaurant and make sure they're not in violation of any of these codes," Donnenberg replied.

Still, he admitted you take a risk anytime you eat out.

"It's a gamble, it's out of your hands at a restaurant, it's in their hands," Donnenberg said.

And Chipotle is not alone - improper temperature is one of the most common health code violations at both chain and independent restaurants.

The CBS 6 Problem Solvers reached out to Chipotle about the local violations we found.

Chipotle's Chief Communications Officer, Laurie Schalow, sent us the following statement:

"Nothing is more important to us than the safety and health of our customers and employees.

At Chipotle we use both internal and external auditors to ensure that our high standards are met. Every one of our 2,500 restaurants is audited (unannounced) once a quarter by a third party vendor and we also have a team of field auditors that audit restaurants randomly and unannounced throughout the year. In addition, restaurant managers and field leaders conduct food safety audits daily in their restaurants.

When a breakdown in our protocol occurs, we quickly correct the problem and retrain our restaurant teams to ensure it will be followed going forward."

Look up state restaurant inspections here.

CBS 6 News is working for you. Click here to email a tip to the CBS 6 Problem Solvers. Be sure to leave us your name, phone number and detailed description of the problem. You can also leave a message by calling 804-254-3672.

Need help? Contact the CBS 6 Problem Solvers.