Chipotle CEO ‘deeply sorry’ about customers who fell sick

FILE - This Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, file photo, shows the door at a Chipotle Mexican Grill in Robinson Township, Pa. Chipotle says it is tightening its food safety standards after its restaurants were linked to dozens of cases of E. coli. The Mexican food chain says it hired IEH Laboratories in Seattle to help improve its system after reports in late October 2015 that linked E. coli cases to its restaurants in Oregon and Washington. Since then, additional cases have been reported in California, Minnesota New York, and Ohio. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Chipotle founder and co-CEO Steve Ells says he is “deeply sorry” about the customers who were sickened after eating at the chain in recent weeks.

“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 public apology comes as sales at 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 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.

Then this week, Boston College said more than 120 students, including members of the men’s basketball team, fell ill after eating at the chain. Chipotle temporarily closed a restaurant where the students said they ate and says it believes the illnesses are an isolated case of norovirus separate from the E. coli outbreak. Public health officials said Wednesday norovirus was found at the restaurant.

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.”

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