Chipotle’s Bait and Switch

» October 1st, 2013


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.



12 Responses to Chipotle’s Bait and Switch

  1. Bea Elliott says:

    According to the Cattle Network Chipotle sources their products from “Harris Ranch, a California operation with 100,000 cattle on feed in an 800-acre facility.”,-120.266733&spn=0.023932,0.038409&t=h&z=15
    It doesn’t look like a happy grazing pasture to me. :/

  2. sdunne1989 says:

    I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but the media’s fawning over “The Scarecrow” is depressing. It’s so transparently manipulative and misleading –why is Chipotle getting off so easy?

  3. Kimberley says:

    Another sham.

    Speaking of which, Whole Foods rates its meat products on a “humane” scale of 1-5. If they really cared, wouldn’t they only insist upon stocking category 5?

    Humane, defined as “having qualities befitting human beings” – can they be serious in using this term applied to slavery and mass murder?

    Here is the Whole Foods scale as a reminder:

    Step 1
    No crates, no cages
    Animals live their lives with space to move around and stretch their legs.

    Step 2
    Enriched environment
    Animals are provided with enrichments that encourage behavior that’s natural to them — like a bale of straw for chickens to peck at, a bowling ball for pigs to shove around, or a sturdy object for cattle to rub against.

    Step 3
    Enhanced outdoor access
    Pigs, chickens and turkeys might live in buildings but they all — yes, each and every one of them — have access to outdoor areas.

    Step 4
    Pasture centered
    When living outdoors, chickens and turkeys get to forage, pigs get to wallow and cattle get to roam.

    Step 5
    Animal centered; all physical alterations prohibited
    At Step 5 the well-being of the animals is the primary focus; efficiency and economy are secondary.

    Step 5+
    Animal centered; entire life on same farm
    Animals raised to Step 5+ standards must be born and live their entire lives on one farm.

    • Deb Couch says:

      I just saw a movie called “Speciesism” which visited a farm that supplies Whole Foods. The farmer was very proud of his “farm.” The birds were being raised in warehouses. They didn’t have any access to outdoors. They weren’t caged, but they spent their whole lives crowded into a room. He kept talking about the “high standards” of Whole Foods. I can’t believe this is what qualifies as “high standards.” I am vegan. There is no way I could live with myself if I bought and ate meat.

  4. patricia tallman says:

    well put!

  5. Bea Elliott says:

    Shhhhh! Chipotle uses CAFO meat!

    The article is from 2009 but the link was recirculated in last week’s cattle-newsletter. Needless to say Chipotle didn’t make any friends with major feedyard investors either.

  6. Doug says:

    thanks so very much for writing about this. I think we have to keep this topic in the public dialogue so it gets the attention it deserves.

  7. Ellen K says:

    Thanks for this post and even preliminary numbers — really helpful as I prepare for being on a discussion panel this weekend (reading Meatonomics now).

    Bea, thanks for the industry article link.

    Kimberly, good additional question about Whole Foods.
    I’ve wondered not about the veracity of clearly impossible junk/fast food boasts but of WF and its ilk, not to mention myriad restaurants /eateries which all claim to serve only sustainable humane products : how is it possible even for this high-end, relatively low-volume chain to meet their supply in compliance with even their lowest standard?

    Consumers are increasingly expecting it of everyone, everyone wants to offer it (ka-ching), and one suspects even current demand can only be met by lowering or manipulating standards so that existing industrial production can be humane-washed enough to get the premium label.

    Can’t wait for the Pacific Standard article

  8. Again, this confirms my impression that the BEST (and only?) way to truly eat responsibly is to make food yourself (as often as possible at least). Labels, claims and certifications fool us into thinking we can choose what we eat. But we don’t and we won’t as long as the products we buy compete for our money through carefully selected words…

    As a vegan living in a world of omnivores, I would be especially cautious with claims intended to have me believe they made something just for me…

    • Mountain says:

      I fully agree. Even people who are acting in good faith often don’t realize what’s important to you. If what you eat is important to you, as what I eat is important to me, you have to be able to prepare your own food.

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