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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.

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Ells saw the light. "He realized that fresh wasn't enough," said Chris Arnold, Chipotle's spokesperson. "If you were going to serve the best-tasting food, you need to understand how animals are raised and vegetables are grown because those things impact on the taste and beyond that they have environmental, animal welfare, and social implications."

Fast forward to today. Chipotle sources 100 percent of its pork from Niman and other ranches that raise "natural" meat, as their non-CAFO style is called. The standard includes animals raised without antibiotics or growth hormones, given room to move around, and fed vegetarian diets.

About 100 percent of Chipotle's chicken and 60 percent of its beef come from naturally raised meat. And when you're serving 70 million pounds of meat a year, that's pretty significant. And it's not just meat, all the dairy is free of the recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) and Arnold says they are working on moving more to milk products from pasture-raised dairy cows (which is far better for animal welfare, the environment and the health and taste of the product).

Chipotle also gets 40 percent of its beans from organic sources and buys produce from local farms when it is seasonally available. Local, by the way, is about a 200-mile radius. The minimum standard now is getting 50 percent of at least one produce item from a local farm, and more when they can, says Arnold.

Adding more organic beans and veggies is in the works, he says. It's a never-ending process to improve the sourcing for ingredients. This means you'll shell out $6 or more for a burrito, but most people think it's worth it. So many, in fact, that in 17 years Chipotle has grown to nearly 1,000 restaurants and is likely to add another 120 to 130 this year. For a while, some of that growth was being spurred by McDonald's, which owned a majority share in the company between 1999 and 2006.

But even after breaking free of the fast food giant, Chipotle is doing better than OK. It's serving about 700,000 people a day and made over $1 billion in sales last year. What's the secret to its success? "Our economic model is built to spend more money on food -- we have the highest food cost as percentage of revenue but we also have among the best profit margins in the industry," said Arnold. He attributes that to "efficiencies everywhere else."

The Trouble With Integrity

Ells's decision to move his company to more naturally raised meat came after seeing the exploitation of animals in CAFOs and not wanting his company to profit from that, said Arnold. The company's manifesto on its Web site reads, "Food With Integrity means working back along the food chain. It means going beyond distributors to discover how the vegetables are grown, how the pigs, cows and chickens are raised, where the best spices come from."

There is just one thing missing from this supply chain and that's the farm workers. And here is the source of Chipotle's trouble.

Last year the company decided to sponsor screenings of the documentary Food Inc. featuring leading food experts like Pollan. There was just one snafu. Two of the people responsible for the film, Fast Food Nation's Eric Schlosser, who produced the documentary, and its director Robert Kenner, were among a group of activists who signed a letter sent to Chipotle's Steve Ells calling him out on his tomato purchasing policies because of the gross human rights abuses and slavery in Florida's fields.