Posts Tagged ‘Food with Integrity

Chipotle Goes Telepathic

» July 17th, 2014


Chipotle’s recent marketing stunt is so bold—so weirdly bold—I almost want to respect the depth of their gall. Although the company has been under fire for claiming that it serves “food with integrity” when in fact it serves loads of factory farmed meat, it has reacted to the negative publicity by promoting Niman Ranch’s pig guy and Chipotle supplier, Paul Willis, as a man whose understanding of porcine welfare comes from “communicating with them telepathically.”

No joke here.

Or is it a joke? I honestly don’t know. Wayne Hsiung, of Direct Action Everywhere—the organization that has led a brilliant series of protests against Chipotle—wrote the following earlier in the week: “You know a company has gone off the rails when it starts talking about telepathy with its victims. But I suppose when your entire business model is founded on a fraud, there’s not much else you can do.” Or could it be that the company is owning its fraudulence, internalizing its own lies, throwing residual caution to the wind, and saying “what the f***”? Let’s have some fun!” Lord knows their CEOs, who earned $25 million a piece last year, are laughing to the bank.

Joke or no joke, there’s something deeply insulting in the telepathy comment. It’s in the worst possible taste to claim empathy for animals that you purposely kill in order to make burritos. Does Paul Willis commune with the pigs when they are being shunted into the slaughter chute? I doubt it. Hell, even home slaughterers have the decency to do their handiwork under the guise of ersatz gravitas.

I’ve spoken to Willis in the past and he does not strike me as the kind of person to say such a thing. Did Chipotle put these words in his mouth? Who knows? Anyway, if there’s any good news in this stunt it’s that its absurdity suggests desperation. Chipotle is high on its own fumes. But the party will come to an end.

DxE: Challenging Chipotle With The Truth

» May 17th, 2014

“Over 98% of Chipotle’s sales involve violence against animals, which amounts to billions of dollars in blood money.” So declares the animal activist organization Direct Action Everywhere.

And they’re right. It is one of the harder realities to accept for those who want to believe that Chipotle is a fast food restaurant aiming to change the food system for the better. Fact is, nothing could be further from the truth. It merely taps popular discontent with conventional fast food to profitably purvey a greenwashed and “humane” version of slaughter. Additional anger might derive from the recent news that the company’s two founders raked in $50 million last year. Blood money indeed. (See my previous work on Chipotle here.)

Direct Action Everywhere is drawing attention to the abuses hidden by Chipotle’s savvy advertising campaigns and shamelessly misleading “Food with Integrity” gambit. It writes, “while its corporate propaganda has succeeded in making it one of the most successful businesses in the world, it has also left it vulnerable – particularly when even meat industry publications have noted that the company purchases meat from the same concentrated animal feedlot operations (so-called “factory farms”) as other buyers.”

To make these claims stick DxE participants have gathered in 37 cities and 13 countries under the banner of “It’s not food, it’s violence” and staged peaceful flash-mob protests at Chipotle stores, in some cases causing early closures with their civil disobedience.

I spoke to lead DxE organizer Wayne Hsiung several weeks ago. The impression I got was that Hsuing, a recovering law professor who has studied at MIT and the University of Chicago, had mastered the art of being everywhere and nowhere at once, passively leading a massive grassroots effort to challenge Chipotle with something it knows very little about: the truth. Any journalist looking for a perfect subject for a profile should seek him out.

Meantime, get involved by going here.

Chipotle’s Dilemma

» October 10th, 2013


A version of the following piece of mine ran yesterday in Pacific Standard. To research the story, I spoke with several Chipotle representatives who genuinely believe that they are building a company with different values than those driving typical fast food chains. I believe them.

My argument here is not that we should rise up and tear down all the Chipotles in the world because they serve animal products. Even though I certainly support the theoretical elimination of all animal product consumption, I also know that the order of our world is currently such that we’re nowhere close to crossing that threshold.

So when the third largest publicly-traded fast food company in the world decided to make animal welfare a priority—even if only rhetorically— I find myself inclined to see that move as a form of progress. Honestly, what choice do we have? What follows is highly critical of Chipotle, but also written in the spirit of thinking that this is a company that, as “responsible meat” gets more expensive and harder to source, will evolve toward an all-veggie fast food company. That prospect is not beyond the pale of the possible, and it would be worth celebrating.    

Should you be moved to comment, please do so here. Also, thank you for the great comments in yesterday’s post. Tomorrow morning I’ll be excerpting them in the letter I’m sending to the Austin City Council, which will consider revising my city’s urban farming regulations next week. 

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.

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 changingcylinder 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.

Chipotle’s Bogus Brand of Integrity

» June 11th, 2012


I’m no fan of Chipotle, as readers are well aware. This fast food chain, formerly owned by McDonald’s, bills itself as a “food culture changing” alternative to the corrupt industrial food system. In reality, the company would shrivel like an overcooked tortilla if it didn’t have immediate access to massive quantities of industrially-produced cheese, beef, sour cream, and chicken.  As much as any fast food outfit, Chipotle is complicit in immeasurable suffering and environmental degradation.

The company, however, has let the tail of marketing wag the dog of business. With savvy cynicism, it’s gotten away with buying pork from smaller farms (and a token percentage of its tomatoes and lettuce locally) and, after hyper-actively publicizing these comparatively meaningless decisions, cashing in on them to win over the bobbleheads who populate the sustainable food movement.

Food with integrity, it claims. I wish consumers knew better. I wish they wouldn’t fall for these cheap seductions. I wish they realized that, when they ate a Chipotle burrito with meat and cheese they were inhaling a cylindrical slab of junk with twice the calories of a Big Mac and more sodium recommended in a single day by the government’s RDA. I wish opponents of factory farming knew that they were perpetuating factory farming when they fell for the Chipotle welfare wash. I wish they knew these things, and acted upon them. But evidently they don’t and they haven’t.

Today, the trade publication Nation’s Restaurant News reported that Chipotle led the “fast casual” (ha!) chains in “improved customer retention.” Joining Chipotle at the top of the customer retention list was Hardee’s, perhaps the most disgusting excuse for a food source on the face of the planet. But that’s appropriate company for a fast food joint marked more by clever marketing ploys than honest and healthy food.


Chipotle on the Hotseat

» May 23rd, 2012


Check out the “Of Interest” section of my website and you’ll learn that Chipotle is in a bit of trouble with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The issue involves “immigration compliance.” The company, which is still coming down from its much ballyhooed “Food with Integrity” campaign, will now have to prove that they hire with integrity as well.  Forget fines, criminal charges look to in the company’s future.

I’m not a fan of Chipotle. The company shamelessly greenwashes its image through clever advertising campaigns and symbolic support for local farmers. Gullible consumers choose Chipotle because they buy the hype. They think the company has opted out of the industrial food system. One of its more insidious advertisements mentions how its burritos are “food culture changing.”

The fact is, though, that Chipotle would not, could not exist without industrial agriculture. A company cannot serve tens of thousands of customers tortillas stuffed with pork, beef, goat, chicken, cheese, sour cream, and mayonnaise without being deeply involved in industrial production, distribution, and supply. So what if the company gets all its pork from Niman Ranch?  Niman has had to grow, consolidate, and compromise in order to fulfill Chipotle’s demand.  It’s a damn hoax, punctuated by the fact that a typical burrito has twice the calories of a Big Mac and more sodium than the overall RDA measure. Integrity.

I’d be perfectly happy if the company was busted for labor violations. If nothing else, it might be the beginning of the grand unmasking of America’s shiftiest fast food joint.