Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

Chipotle: The Ethical Future Of Fast Food?

Chipotle claims to sell "food with integrity." But are there limits to how ethical a chain restaurant can be?

Exterior of a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant at night.

Photo: Aranami (flickr)

As of June 2011, 100 percent of the pork served at Chipotle met standards for antibiotic-free, humanely-raised meat, as did 100 percent of its chicken and 60 percent of its beef.

There’s a stable of big names who endorse small-scale, antibiotic-free livestock farming: Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Joel Salatin.

But there’s another name joining the mix, and it’s an unlikely one:

Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Crazy, right?

Marks Of Foodie Shame

Let’s get a few things out of the way. Yes, Chipotle is fast food. (Well, they call themselves “fast casual dining,” claiming that their food is better than fast food, though that’s for your taste buds to decide.)

And yes, investment by McDonald’s spurred the chain’s initial growth spurt in the early 2000’s, though McDonald’s divested itself of all Chipotle shares in 2006, when the company went public.

But despite these marks of foodie shame, Chipotle has been doing a lot to earn our love.

All The Right Moves

Recently, the chain made headlines by voicing support for stronger FDA limits on antibiotic use in livestock.

Their annual “Boorito” fundraiser at Halloween went to support Farm Aid and their own Chipotle Cultivate Foundation, which supports family farms.

They also sponsored Cultivate Chicago, a day-long event that brought free local food demonstrations and tastings to the city’s Lincoln Park. Proceeds from food sales supported FamilyFarmed.org, an organization that supports small-scale farmers.

Meat Without Drugs, Produce Without Miles

The company’s money is where its mouth is: their mission statement calls for the use of free-range, hormone-free meat and dairy, and local produce whenever possible.

They source their pork from Niman Ranch, which purchases its meat from farmers committed to raising their livestock free of cages and antibiotics. As of June 2011, 100 percent of their chicken and 60 percent of their beef also met standards for antibiotic- and hormone-free, humanely-raised meat.

Do Your Ethics Slice Your Profits?

Because natural meats cost more than meats raised in factory farms, Chipotle’s decisions concerning ingredients have committed them to higher overhead costs.

In theory, this means they’re making a smaller profit margin than they would be if they bought their ingredients through traditional channels.

But the company’s leadership assert that the additional investment actually benefits them in the long run, because ethically-raised meats simply taste better. As a result, they sell more.

When they replaced the factory-raised pork in their carnitas with Niman Ranch pork, “We started selling twice as many carnitas as we had before,” says Chris Arnold, Chipotle’s Director of Communications.  

Reality Check

Of course, there are limits to Chipotle’s to how local, seasonal, natural and ethical Chipotle can be.

For one thing, there’s Niman Ranch, whose ability to sell “natural” meat relatively cheaply may come at the expense of the honesty of that “natural” label. (Watch this space for a feature on Niman Ranch, coming soon.)

Then there’s the challenge of maintaining a consistent menu year-round and nationwide. A Chipotle restaurant in Iowa needs avocados as much as the one in California does. Off-season, both of those locations probably get their avocados from Mexico or Chile. The same goes for the lettuce and tomatoes.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization that campaigns for fair wages for farm workers in the United States, also points out that Chipotle has failed to sign on to their Fair Food Program, which seeks to put pressure on farms to ensure their produce pickers are paid a fair wage.

Does Chipotle make a better burrito? Yes. But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement.

Read More:

  • Antibiotic-Free Meat Business Is Booming, Thanks To Chipotle (NPR)
  • The Ethical Burrito: Chipotle Makes Fast-Food Nation Sustainable (GOOD.is)
  •  Chipotle Backing Stronger FDA Limits On Farm Animal Antibiotics (The Hill)
  •  Chipotle Is Best: Uses More Than 1.5 Million Pounds Of Florida Produce (Miami New Times)
Sarah Gordon

Sarah Gordon has been interested in food ethics since she was 15, learned about industrial slaughter, and launched into 10 years of vegetarianism. These days, she strives to be a conscientious omnivore. Now a PhD candidate in folklore, her research has caused her to spend a lot of time in the remote Canadian sub-arctic, where the lake trout (sustainably harvested) tastes amazing.

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