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One Company Thinks They've Created Fast Food With a Conscience -- Are They Right?

Chipotle has a great record when it comes to buying more sustainable ingredients, but it has done one thing that has human rights activists howling.

If you look at the fast food industry through a Darwinian lens, successful evolution is about bigger and cheaper. How many calories can be squeezed between the book ends of a bun? How many pennies can the eager eater save? For a buck or less you can get a breakfast sandwich at McDonald's, a quarter-pound double cheeseburger from Burger King, or a five-layer burrito from Taco Bell.

Of course the quality of the food is questionable and the costs to your health and the environment either get externalized or are not paid for years, maybe even generations. But does it have to be that way? Do we have to compromise our values to get a "value meal"? Can we buy food made quickly and have it taste good and be better for us? Can fast food actually have a conscience?

Oprah thinks so. As the great influencer of consumer culture in America, the talk show maven recently hosted Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle Mexican Grill in an episode on " Food 101." The show also featured best-selling author Michael Pollan, vegan actress Alicia Silverstone and the groundbreaking documentary film Food Inc.

Since its founding in 1993, Chipotle has begun to emerge as a kind of rock star in the food world. It's fast food, but it's fresh, and the company's " food with integrity" philosophy has earned it all sorts of accolades among sustainable eaters. For a restaurant chain, it has done so much right, including buying more organic and local produce and naturally raised meat. But in the long list of merits, there is a pretty serious stumble that has human rights activists howling.

The controversy comes from the sourcing of Chipotle's tomatoes: Florida, virtually the only place to get tomatoes in winter. Workers there are facing human rights abuses, and even at times, documented cases of downright slavery. A leading human rights group has been working with fast food companies like McDonald's and Burger King to improve conditions, but Chipotle has thus far refused to join the effort. As Sean Sellers asked in a recent story on Grist, "All of which brings us to a question posed by Eric Schlosser at last year's Slow Food Nation conference: 'Does it matter whether an heirloom tomato is local and organic if it was harvested with slave labor?'"

First, the Good Stuff

Chipotle is not your average fast food restaurant. This is evident for a lot of reasons, the most obvious being that you can't get a meal for a dollar or for that matter even a side of salsa. And that should be considered a good thing.

About 10 years ago, Ells, who is the founder, CEO and also a chef, was fiddling with the carnitas recipe, which just didn't taste as good as he thought it should. At the same time he read Ed Behr's newsletter, The Art of Eating, where he learned about Niman Ranch, a collective of family farmers who were raising pigs the old-fashioned way. These animals weren't given hormones and were free to romp in pig-style in the great outdoors.

Ells flew to Iowa to visit Paul Willis, a farmer participating in the Niman co-op. He liked what he saw there -- and liked it even more when he saw the alternative. After visiting the Willis ranch, he paid a visit to a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) that was typical of the source for the kind of commodity pork he had been using. Conditions at the CAFO were horrifying.