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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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Of course, the pay and conditions for farm workers across America, not just tomato pickers, is dismal at best. As Americans' consciousness about eating healthy food increases, as we talk more and more about organic and local, where is the conversation about the plight of farm workers?

"Broadly speaking, however, labor and human rights have been strictly segregated from the sustainability agenda," Sellers wrote in his Grist article. "Thus it is possible for Chipotle to dream of 'revolutionizing the way America grows, gathers, serves and eats its food,' without ever once mentioning the human beings who plant and handpick the majority of our fresh fruits and vegetables."

There are three million farm workers in the U.S., Sellers reports, and they are the backbone of a trillion-dollar food industry. Thus far, it has been organizations like CIW which has continuously rallied to change the course of business and consumer consciousness. So why hasn't Chipotle signed on?

It's not that the company is unaware. And it is not that it doesn't care about workers. Last year, Chipotle finally agreed to the penny per pound raise, but did it on its own terms, and not through CIW. (And consequently, not in a way that could be verified.)

"We think we have a lot of common ground with the CIW in that we're both working to improve elements of the food supply system," said Chipotle's Arnold. "Where we differ is the CIW is looking at one piece of the puzzle, farm worker rights in Florida. We're looking at it very holistically. That's why we were the first large commercial buyer to strike a deal with a grower that actually allows for the improvement of wages for farm workers."

But critics blasted Chipotle's go-it-alone approach as lacking transparency, and its unwillingness to work with actual farm workers through CIW. The main premise behind the Campaign for Fair Food is not just better wages, but allowing the workers to have a say in what a fair tomato industry would look like and what reforms need to be made. "That's why Chipotle's response to this thing has been so unsatisfactory," said Sellers. "They have refused to recognize the importance of worker participation in advancing and defending their own labor rights."

Sellers quotes Gerardo Reyes of CIW, who said, "Under their plan, Chipotle will review its own code of conduct and decide if any changes are appropriate, Chipotle will oversee its own payments under its penny per pound plan, and Chipotle will verify its own compliance with the changes it is proposing. That's just not credible. Transparency, verification, and participation are essential elements of the agreements we have reached with other fast-food leaders, and they are essential elements in any defensible definition of social responsibility."

Arnold contends that Chipotle has built a "ten-year-plus track record of driving positive change in the food supply industry with out third party agreements." But, it could be argued, third parties are one of the most crucial forces in trying to improve labor conditions.

As an example, Chipotle previously had backed an industry-established group called SAFE, Socially Accountable Farm Employers, which was basically set up by the industry to monitor itself. As you can guess, SAFE didn't pan out that well and has been largely discredited. In fact, two of the farms certified by SAFE were implicated in a 2007 slavery case.

"Chipotle had no idea it was buying from one of the growers tainted by the most recent slavery prosecution until the CIW told them about it," said Sellers. "They would have known much earlier if they had a real working relationship with the CIW."