Margot Ford McMillen

Why Chipotle Has Seriously Shaken Up the Fast Food Industry

Chipotle recently shook the world — well, OK, not the whole world, but the fast-food one — by announcing that pork would be off the menu in 600 restaurants for an unspecified time because they weren’t able to source sustainably-raised pork.

Chipotle is trying to live within their motto “Food with Integrity.” According to their website, they buy from “farmers 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 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.”

Yeah, I know that the “deeply bedded pens” is a troubling phrase. It means that the animals can be kept inside, but not on metal floors with no bedding. That “slatted floor” system is usual in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). The mama pigs are kept in pens—gestation crates—for their pregnancy where they barely have room to move from a standing position to lying down. From the top, the mamas look like hot dog buns in a package, almost attached side to side. Then they are supposed to move to a birthing crate—called a farrowing crate. The movement, after three months of immobility, involves a lot of abuse from handlers, according to Ten Genoways’ new book The Chain: Farm, Factory and the Fate of our Food. In fact, if you get that book, you might want to skip the part where the mamas (called sows) have to move from one crate to another.

The Chipotle move is a strong idea for a food sector usually known for unhealthy recipes, exploited workers and cheap ingredients.

Rumors had been flying around the sustainable ag community for about a year that Chipotle wasn’t living up to its mission, but I don’t eat fast food, so I didn’t pay much attention. And, now that the word is out, I haven’t been able to find out exactly how the boycott, which is truly revolutionary, came about. Chipotle has been tightlipped about which growers, exactly, broke the rules.

So where did the discovery begin? Did consumers appear at outlets with signs to protest? Or did the action come from stockholders, threatening to sell and drive the price of stock into the cellar? Or did a conscientious manager figure out that Chipotle should put their policies into action?

Whatever the reason, the announcement gave Chipotle stock a nice little pop after years of steady growth. And other fast food chains should take note. They say it’s too hard to find good meats, but that’s changing fast.

Here in Missouri, consumers are really catching on and our farmers are also! One of the factoids I picked up at a recent conference was that in our state there has been a huge increase in the amount of meat butchered locally for the local market. Three years ago, there were 9 slaughterhouses with state inspection. Today there are 39 ... an increase of more than 400%.

It’s easy these days to find locally-raised meats in good restaurants and grocery stores. Fast food chains should take note.

At that same conference were a whole lot of row-croppers, the big guys with the huge combines and lots of debt, who want to get into something new. Biotech crops are not working as advertised, especially when it comes to failures in weed control. The resistant weeds are truly becoming a problem to ordinary corn-belt farmers. This year, they may adopt crops with different resistance—2,4D and dicamba have been approved. But row-croppers can see that 2,4D and dicamba, besides being dangerous, will quickly have resistance issues.

Also, commodity crop prices are unstable and the farmers have realized they don’t have diversity of markets. They’re stuck with the ups and downs, can’t set their own prices like we little guys can, selling directly to consumers that want what we raise.

I’ve had row-croppers tell me they want to sell food instead of fuel. They WANT the connection with consumers. The majority of our neighbors are afraid to speak out but they pull me aside and thank me for what we’re doing. I have always gone to all the ladies’ club meetings, so I see the wives a lot. Very sad they won’t speak out.

All this might be difficult for small farms like mine, as the big guys flex their muscles. They have the potential of raising lots and lots of local foods, consolidating the market so that little farms can’t compete. And the big guys have the muscle to change the rules so that standards like the organic standards are changed to confuse consumers.

It all remains to be seen, but the Chipotle move shows that consumers can benefit if restaurants and grocers decide to develop a conscience.
 

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