Bookmark and Share August 5, 2009 - Dave Mulder

Chipotle: Food with integrity

Back in Spring 2006, a new burrito joint named Chipotle opened on Grand River Avenue in downtown East Lansing. It sounded like a variation of Qdoba (which was already established in Michigan), but I gave it a whirl after hearing rave reviews from a Las Vegas friend. Very quickly, I became hooked (it also helped that I fell into several free burrito coupons early on). Chipotle rapidly moved up the list of my favorite spots to grab a meal from, and it became a 1-2 times per week routine.

Sadly, Chipotle’s burritos were cut out of my diet back in January, and starting in June I had resolved to avoid commodity meat produced by CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). This change effectively made me a vegetarian, until I could find reliable sources of pasture-fed non-CAFO meat.

Which brings me to the point of this discussion: Last week, I walked into Chipotle and ordered myself a fajita burrito with carnitas (pork).

This whirlwind of change was preceded by a brief e-mail exchange with Joe Stupp. Mr. Stupp does some kind of management/public relations for Chipotle, most visibly by sending out promotional e-mails. One of these timely messages invited readers to check out the limited-release documentary Food, Inc. Food, Inc. examines the impact of industrialization on America’s food production, particularly on meat and CAFOs. Through interviews and great visuals, the film encourages viewers to eat locally and sustainably by voting with their food dollars. Having already seen it, Joe’s message excited me; it could mean that the large national restaurant chain and I shared some food philosophy.

I wrote back to Joe and asked him to elaborate on Chipotle’s support for the film. This is what he sent back:

Through our vision of “Food with Integrity,” we have a decade-long track record of working to improve the food system in America. A track record that includes serving more naturally raised meat (from animals that are raised in a humane way, never given antibiotics or added hormones, and fed a pure vegetarian diet with no animal byproducts) than any other restaurant in the world (more than 60 million pounds this year); being the first national restaurant company to serve dairy products (for us that’s cheese and sour cream) made with milk from cows that are not given the synthetic hormone rBGH; and being the first national restaurant company to commit to organic and locally grown produce (this year, about 35 percent of all of the beans we serve are organically grown and, when seasonally available, at least 35 percent of at least one produce item – more than 35 percent and more than one item whenever possible – in all of our restaurants comes from local farms). These are important milestones and are unequalled among restaurant companies (regardless of category).

In addition, we continue to be a vocal advocate for change in the nation’s food supply and an acknowledged leader in that regard. Just recently, our founder and co-CEO Steve Ells testified before the House Rules Committee in support of HR 1549, which would ban the sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock. Similarly, through our support for the film Food, Inc., we have been hosting free screenings of the film across the country – unfortunately not in your area however. And these screenings have been well-attended (at or near capacity in every city), giving thousands of people the opportunity to see the film and hear its message. And while we share many of the same beliefs as are discussed in the film, we are not included in it in any way and could have very easily spent the money we have spent on that advertising our own cause and our own accomplishments. But we think it is important that people understand all of these broader issues.

All of this being said, we are definitely not perfect, nor will we ever be. Some of our meats are indeed still commodity meats (most especially our beef – there isn’t enough of a supply), and our programs for produce aren’t very well developed yet either. But we’re working on all of these things for the future. It is after to us a journey rather than a destination, and we aim to continue making progress.

Whoa! That’s awesome! Although I had always seen this philosophy hinted at on the walls of the East Lansing Chipotle, I never realized what it meant. To me, the last paragraph is the most important one. Joe points out that Chipotle is not perfect; national restaurant chains will always require extensive fossil fuel transportation systems to scurry their raw material around the country. However, the fact that they are succeeding with a business model that increasingly purchases naturally-raised animal meat means that the consumption dynamic is turning. As more people purchase organic food and pasture-fed animal meat, more farmers and producers will step up to change the way they do business. A big buyer like Chipotle can exert enormous influence over America’s food supply (in the same way that McDonalds has).

A day later I found myself in line at the East Lansing Chipotle, thinking about all this as I placed an order for a fajita burrito with carnitas, my first meat purchase in nearly two months. After tacking on some corn salsa, hot salsa, sour cream, and cheese, I got back home to eat my meal. It was delicious; voting for food with integrity never tasted so good.

Joe also sent me a link to a Nightline interview with Steve Ells, founder and co-CEO of Chipotle. Also seen in the interview is Joel Salatin, the man behind Polyface Farms (in Swoope, VA).

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