Chipotle CEO says he's sorry as sick count climbs

NEW YORK -- Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) founder and co-CEO Steve Ells apologized for the outbreak of E. coli that has sickened people in nine states, with the corporate mea culpa coming as Boston College hiked its count of students who reported eating at Chipotle and later being sickened by norovirus.

"I'm sorry for the people who got sick. They're having a tough time and I feel terrible about that," Ells said in an interview on NBC's Today show.

Ells repeated the company's pledge to tighten food safety procedures to ensure such incidents do not happen again.

The outbreak of norovirus at a Chipotle about half a mile from campus has sickened 141 Boston College students, according to Jack Dunn, a spokesperson for the school. "In addition, 12 students who did not eat at Chipotle have also come down with norovirus symptoms," Dunn said. "We expect that number will continue to grow considering the highly contagious nature of the norovirus."

Norovirus can be transmitted by eating contaminated food, or by touching infected surfaces, then putting your fingers in your mouth. The best way to stop norovirus in its tracks is to wash your hands, especially after using the bathroom and changing diapers, but also before eating and when preparing food.

Sales of Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. have been slammed by high-profile food scares in recent weeks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that at least 52 people in nine states have been sickened in an E. coli outbreak, with 47 of them having eaten at Chipotle. The most recent E. coli case happened Nov. 13.

The ingredient that sickened people has not been identified. But Chipotle says whatever the likely culprit was is out of its restaurants. The company has noted the exposure period for the outbreak appears to have passed.

This week students from Boston College, including members of the men's basketball team, reported feeling sick after eating at the chain this past weekend. The City of Boston temporarily closed the restaurant until further notice.

Officials said an employee at the restaurant was sick during a shift last week and may have caused the outbreak of norovirus, which is very contagious and causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Chipotle says it offers employees paid sick days and that the employee in question would have been eligible for the benefit.

Chris Arnold, a Chipotle spokesman, also said an employee coming in sick was in violation of the company's policies. Before reopening the restaurant in Boston, Arnold said all the employees are being tested for norovirus, and that they will not return to work until they are cleared.

In its annual report, Chipotle has noted it may be at a higher risk for outbreaks of food-borne illnesses because of its "fresh produce and meats rather than frozen, and our reliance on employees cooking with traditional methods rather than automation."

However, the illnesses have led to a top-down review of safety practices at Chipotle, Ells said.

Health experts brought in by Chipotle believe, Ells said, that changes enacted after the outbreak "will put us 10 to 15 years ahead of industry norms, and I believe this will be the safest restaurant to eat at.

Company shares, down more than 10 percent in the past month, rebounded sharply after Ells' interview, and were lately up more than 4 percent.