Chipotle’s Bait and Switch
For many years I’ve been pleading with investigative journalists with more time and patience than I have to answer a basic question about Chipotle Mexican Grill: how was the company going to fulfill its much advertised promise to source all of its beef and pork from “humane” or “sustainable” farms? I asked the question because I did some basic math and realized that Chipotle purchases 120 millions pounds of meat a year while its largest “humane” supplier is Niman, which employs about 700 farmers. Seven hundred farmers cannot produce that much meat in any given year. So what was I missing?
Last month Chipotle answered the question for me. “Every year we need 20 to 25 percent more of everything,” explained Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold. “And the beef supply isn’t keeping up as well.” Of course it’s not. It never was.But that didn’t prevent the company from spelling out a greenwashed vision of sustainability and, touting their concerns for animal welfare, ballyhooing themselves into the hearts of those who want to eat fast food while feeling responsible about it, and cashing in on the whole arrangement.
Despite its appeal to serving “food with integrity,” the company is now planning to admit cows treated with antibiotics back into the beef supply. That is, cows from conventional farms. “We are certainly willing to consider this change,” said Steve Ells, co-CEO of Chipotle. Allowing sick animals treated with antibiotics into the company’s beef supply “opens up their supply quite a bit,” said a former USDA agricultural economist.” Indeed it does. More to the point, it allows Chipotle to bask in the glow of a pre-established reputation for sustainability and concern for animal welfare while taking quiet steps in retreat from that mission.
What really weird is that Ells, even as these supply problems persist, continues to pick up his bullhorn and declare to an admiring audience of burrito eaters that “The more consumers understand the benefits of eating food from more sustainable sources, the more they’re going to expect it from everyone.” In other words, Ells hopes that Chipotle, in leading the way toward non industrialized meat, will spur other fast food joints to the same. This is weird because it’s impossible. Producing all the animal products purchased by all the fast food restaurants in the country on pasture would be an ecological nightmare. We lack the land and labor and, as production costs rose, it would provide added incentive to factory farms to intensify production. But none of that matters.
Because all this Chipotle gambit is about is words.