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Chipotle CEO speaks out after health scares: 'This will be the safest place to eat'

In the midst of the second illness outbreak linked to Chipotle in two months, founder and CEO Steve Ells apologized on TODAY.
/ Source: TODAY

In the midst of the second illness outbreak linked to Chipotle in two months, founder and CEO Steve Ells apologized on TODAY to those who have been sickened and promised stringent new guidelines to protect patrons from any future health issues.

"The procedures we're putting in place to eat are so above industry norms that we are going to be the safest place to eat,'' Ells told Matt Lauer Thursday.

Norovirus has sickened 120 students at Boston College who ate at a local Chipotle restaurant, health officials said Tuesday. The location has been cited for three critical violations by health officials and has been voluntarily closed by the company. Norovirus is a fast-spreading airborne bug that causes gastrointestinal distress and usually lasts for a few days.

"It's a really tough time,'' Ells said. "I have to say I'm sorry for the people that got sick. They're having a tough time. I feel terrible about that, and we're doing a lot to rectify this and make sure it doesn't happen again."

Chipotle door
The door at a Chipotle Mexican Grill.Gene J. Puskar / AP

This appears to be the peak of the outbreak, but Ells cautioned that the contagious nature of norovirus could mean there will be more cases reported.

"With the norovirus, we have heard that this is the extent of it, but it's a disease that is very easily passed and so it spreads very, very quickly from person to person,'' he said. "When we re-open, the [Boston] restaurant will be completely sanitized, and every single employee will have been tested and assured that they do not have norovirus."

Chipotle, which brands itself as a healthier, fresher alternative to fast food, now faces concerns from customers who regularly eat there.

"I got a burrito bowl like I always do,'' college student Vernon Thomas told NBC's Ron Mott on TODAY Thursday. "Then two hours after that, I got a text from my roommate saying, 'Vernon did you see the email?' After so many people got sick after eating here, I'm not sure if I'm going to come back."

Norovirus also is not easy to eradicate, according to experts.

"Hopefully they'll be effective, but you have to do a lot more than cleaning solutions,'' Thomas Webster, a chemical engineering professor at Northeastern University, told TODAY. "You know you need things like ultra violet lights, you need things like high temperature."

The crisis in Boston comes on the heels of an E. coli outbreak linked to Chipotle across nine states that sickened more than 50 people at the end of last month. The company closed 43 restaurants in Oregon and Washington in late October after health officials discovered most of the people sickened in the outbreak had eaten at Chipotle. The restaurants have since re-opened.

An investigation by the Food and Drug Administration was not able to locate the exact source of the E. coli outbreak.

"It's true,'' Ells said. "We've had teams looking at this. We closed our restaurants out of an abundance of caution and tested all the ingredients, surfaces, thousands and thousands of tests, and they all came back negative for E. coli, and so if there's a silver lining in this, it's that we have looked at every single ingredient we use at Chipotle."

Cases of E. coli were also reported in California, New York, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Minnesota. The outbreak caused the company's stock price to plummet 10 percent to a new low for the year, and Chipotle has warned of a potential double-digit drop in same-store sales in the fourth quarter.

"That's not what we're thinking about now,'' Ells said about the financial repercussions. "We're thinking about the safety and quality of our ingredients to put in place practices that will not enable this to happen again, practices that are so far above industry norms today that we will be the safest place to eat."

Follow writer Scott Stump on Twitter.