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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Have a little faith in Chipotle

Chipotle is a restaurant that many people have asked me about throughout its tenure in the ranks of fast food restaurants. Chipotle began in 1993, but many people did not hear about it until it opened up shop(s) on their main street.

I always dismissed Chipotle as another big corporation trying to "humane wash" their food, with no rBGH and pretty pictures of cows on their walls. After all, they are a fast food chain and McDonald's had a 87 percent stake in the company. Even though McDonald's sold its shares in 2006, I never looked back. I always ordered the vegan burrito... until now?

The Chipotle Cultivate Foundation just released this moving video about factory farms.

The video, "Back to the Start" features Coldplay's The Scientist, covered by country music singer, family farm advocate and co-founder of Farm Aid, Willie Nelson.

The description of the video reads:
The film, by film-maker Johnny Kelly, depicts the life of a farmer as he slowly turns his family farm into an industrial animal factory before seeing the errors of his ways and opting for a more sustainable future. Both the film and the soundtrack were commissioned by Chipotle to emphasize the importance of developing a sustainable food system.
So what is this? Is it just humane washing like Horizon Organic or the Happy Cows Come From California ads?

I oddly don't think so...

It appears that Chipotle is taking, and has been taking, a critical step toward going where no fast food chain --and few restaurants-- have gone before. The foundation is a fairly new initiative, and here is what it is aiming to achieve:
The Chipotle Cultivate Foundation is committed to creating a more sustainable and healthful food supply and to raising awareness concerning food issues. This is realized through the support of family farmers and their communities, educators and programs that teach younger generations about food matters, along with support for ranchers and farmers who are working to develop more sustainable practices.

The Chipotle Cultivate Foundation is a non-profit organization established by Chipotle Mexican Grill. Over the last several years, Chipotle has contributed more than $2 million to help fund initiatives that support sustainable agriculture, family farming, culinary education, and innovation that promotes better food. This has included such beneficiaries as: The Jamie Oliver Food Revolution, the Lunch Box, the Nature Conservancy and Veggie U, Niman Scholarship, Culinary Institute of America, The Land Institute, and The Cultivate Foundation will continue with this tradition of giving started by Chipotle.
Hmmm... these are some noteworthy and respectable groups to be in bed with a fast food company...

And on their nascent website they are promoting a budding partnership with, an organization that works with family farmers to build local food systems. The campaign, Wrap What You Love, raised $96,000 for the organization.

Now this is getting interesting....

I did some digging around on the Chipotle website and what I found surprised me, and made me want to hold off on the zucchini casserole tonight and actually go out to Chipotle. Here are excerpts from their animal care section:
PIGS: There are ranchers whose pigs are raised outside or in deeply bedded pens, are never given antibiotics and are fed a vegetarian diet. It's the way animals were raised 50 years ago before huge factory farms changed the industry. We believe pigs that are cared for in this way enjoy happier, healthier lives and produce the best pork we've ever tasted.

We call this style of ranching naturally raised, and since 2001, we have sourced 100% of our pork from producers who follow these guidelines.

BEEF COWS: When we started purchasing naturally raised beef in 1999 we could hardly find any suppliers that met our standards. We’ve put a lot of work into poking, prodding, convincing, and occasionally applying guilt to ranchers in order to get more and more suppliers to meet our naturally raised standards.

Today, thanks to increased demand, we purchase 85 percent of our beef from ranches that meet or exceed our naturally raised standards. We're still working on it, and we won't rest until 100% of our beef is naturally raised.

DAIRY COWS: Currently over 35% of the dairy we serve at Chipotle comes from pasture-raised cows. We are working all the time to increase the number of our suppliers who provide pasture-raised dairy... We’re definitely working on it. Stay tuned.

CHICKEN: By U.S. law, all chicken available today must be raised without added growth hormones. But we’re overachievers. Our ultimate goal is to have 100% of our chickens raised without the use of antibiotics. We also want to avoid any supplier that uses additional additives in their feed, like arsenic. They see this as a way to make chickens grow faster. We think arsenic sounds a lot like poison.
It doesn't seem possible for a huge national chain, with over 1,000 restaurants, to serve humane food. But you can look at models that have worked, like Organic Valley, and see that it is possible. By building a network of local, sustainable and humane farms, you can create a uniform product and sell it nationally.

Clearly Chipotle has some work to do. Only 35 percent of their milk comes from pastured cows. And they don't list their farmers. But what can we do to make sure they stay their course, and all their animal products (not just a percentage) come from humanely treated animals?

1) Go out to a Chipotle, eat their food, and talk to a manager about their sustainable food. If they have response cards, fill one out.

2) Contact them to say you support their sustainable and humane food initiative and want 100 percent humanely raised animals (including dairy!).

3) Make sure they stay their course and are transparent by posting on their Facebook wall and asking them to share what farms they buy from.

4) Share this information with friends and families and ask them to do the same.

As Walter Sobcheck said in the Big Lebowski, "Has the whole world gone crazy?" Can a fast food chain actually be humane? Either Willie Nelson really needs the money (again); the lead singer of Cold Play, Chris Martin, really is crazy (as evidenced by his child named Apple), or a fast food company is taking a giant step forward in the right direction.

We shall see, but for now, I have faith.

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