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Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant. (PHOTO: SUPREMECRETE/FLICKR)

Chipotle’s Choice: A Shift Away From Responsibly Raised Beef

• October 09, 2013 • 6:00 AM

Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant. (PHOTO: SUPREMECRETE/FLICKR)

For a company that markets itself by lambasting the industrial food system, Chipotle’s offerings are starting to look a lot like many other fast-food chains out there, complete with growth hormones, feedlots, GMOs, and more.

Fast-food empires—McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and so on—fuel the engine of agribusiness. They support an industrialized supply stream clogged with hormone-laden beef, genetically modified corn and soy, and an endless flow of processed “food-like substances.” They support the alienation and mistreatment of farm laborers, who are paid a pittance for their neck-down work. They support meals weighted with alarming quantities of sodium and fat, leading to an obesity and diabetes crisis. Fast food means high volume and high volume means industrial agriculture and industrial agriculture means food that’s bad for animal welfare, bad for the environment, and bad for people’s health (PDF). For any conscientious consumer, this paragraph is, unfortunately, very old news.

Perhaps more surprising, though, is the fact that Chipotle Mexican Grill—the foodie’s alternative for a relatively quick and responsible meal—is often complicit in these culinary crimes and misdemeanors. Despite the company’s savvy effort to brand itself otherwise, it inevitably finds itself ensnared in an industrial system that effectively churns out a smorgasbord of meat, beans, cheese, sour cream, guacamole, tomatoes, salsa, and a steady flow of condiments. Insisting that, as spokesperson Danielle Winslow told me, “our first priority is to accommodate our customers”—which effectively means supplying all ingredients at full capacity all the time—Chipotle has yet to roll a burrito that evades the reach of factory farming.

Chipotle is a company that’s trying to buck the fast-food norm. It should be commended for doing so. But it must understand that reforming the food system means more than supporting responsible choices.

You’d never know this from the company’s successful promotional campaigns. Through advertising endeavors such as its “Food With Integrity” program, or its declaration that a Chipotle burrito is a “hand crafted, local farm supporting, food culture changing cylinder of deliciousness,” or in-store signs that declare “no prescription needed” (if the meat is antibiotic-free), or, most recently (and virally), a short video—”The Scarecrow“—thoroughly lambasting the industrial food system, the publicly traded company with 1,500 stores nationwide has established a reputation so deeply infused with agrarian virtue that many consumers simply assume that the company really is leading a revolution to produce burritos high in rectitude, low in guilt, and wrapped in responsibility. For the effectiveness of its advertisements, Chipotle is in a league of its own.

To its credit, the company hasn’t ignored the disparity between its advertised ideals and actual choices. It’s usually the first to recognize its shortcomings and, as conversations with company representatives reiterate, transparency seems genuinely valued. Generally, it adopts a sensible “we’re doing our best under the circumstances” approach to external criticisms about its linkages to industrial agriculture, arguing that by demanding “all-natural” and “humanely raised” meat it’s incentivizing the current food system to scale down, decentralize, and return to more authentic methods of production. This position seems reasonable enough, if not revolutionary, given that it’s coming from “the third largest publicly traded restaurant in terms of market capitalization” behind McDonald’s and Yum! Brands.

But here’s the deal: The logic only sticks if the company decides to buck up and honestly adhere to the sustainable food movement’s most basic tenets, ones to which it so vigorously appeals in its marketing endeavors. Two precepts in particular—eating what’s in season and deciding that when the supply of one responsibly sourced ingredient declines you make up for it with another responsibly sourced ingredient—are, according to the movement that Chipotle has so successfully tapped into, critical to achieving the genuine change it promotes. When it comes time to walk this walk, though, Chipotle goes risk averse.

Consider Chipotle’s recent response to declining supplies of “responsibly raised” beef. In 1999 the company started sourcing “all-natural” beef from producers that raised animals mostly on pasture and eschewed antibiotics and growth hormones. Over the years Chipotle has formed strong relationships with smaller-scale beef producers including Niman, Country Natural, and Meyer. Last August, however, the beef supply lagged. This was not an unusual experience. Historically, when pork supplies declined, the company waited patiently until they resumed. Beef, however, is a more popular menu choice than pork. So Chipotle now faced a critical decision: it could accept the diminished supply of all-natural beef or it could replace it with what Winslow called “commodity beef”—that is, factory farmed beef.

Chipotle chose the latter. A month before its influential anti-factory farm video went viral Chipotle co-CEO Steve Ells, citing declining supplies of all-natural beef, said in a press release that, with regards to allowing antibiotics back in the company’s beef supply, “we are certainly willing to consider this change.” Winslow made it clear in a phone interview that this change had been considered and a decision had been made. The “short-term disruption” in the supply of beef from smaller suppliers, she said, “has forced us to use commodity beef.” Twenty percent of the company’s beef will now come from producers that typically use GMO-based feed, antibiotics, growth hormones, feedlots, and all the other unsavory aspects of industrial animal agriculture that Chipotle condemns as loudly as anyone else. The company, which insists the change is only temporary, will alert consumers with in-store notices.

Chipotle is a company that’s trying to buck the fast-food norm. It should be commended for doing so. But it must understand that reforming the food system means more than supporting responsible choices. It also means rejecting irresponsibly produced choices—something that a relatively small (20 percent) drop in one ingredient suggests it could do. Having once removed commodity meat from its supply chain, Chipotle should, as a matter of immutable policy, never let it back in. My guess is that patrons would happily accept this stance, as well as the inconvenience that might follow.

To do otherwise is to acknowledge industrial animal agriculture as a viable choice. And when a fast-food chain trying to change the game does that, when it legitimates industrial animal agriculture as an option in the breach, there will be no food revolution. Not even close. If Chipotle decides that, as a publicly traded company beholden to shareholders, it cannot operate without constant access to industrial agriculture, that’s fine. In fact, it’d be perfectly understandable. But then it should stop making ads that suggest otherwise.

James McWilliams
James McWilliams is a professor at Texas State University and the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America. His writing on food, agriculture, and animals has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Washington Post, Slate, The Atlantic, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @the_pitchfork.

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