Saturday, January 9, 2010

Eat at Steve's.

Lately, I've been hearing whispers that Chipotle (a personal fave) is doing "good things". In search of details, I did some googling, which turned up several articles that mentioned "Food With Integrity". Eventually, I made it right to the source: Chipotle's webpage about its Food With Integrity program in which the Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle, explains why and how he is adopting more ethical food standards for his restaurants. Here are some excerpts:

"Food With Integrity" isn't a marketing slogan. It's not a product line of natural and organic foods. And it's not a corporate initiative that will ever be finished or set aside to make room for other priorities. It's a philosophy that we can always do better in terms of the food we buy. And when we say better, we mean better in every sense of the word- better tasting, coming from better sources, better for the environment, better for the animals, and better for the farmers who raise the animals and grow the produce.

The hallmarks of Food With Integrity include things like unprocessed, seasonal, family-farmed, sustainable, nutritious, naturally raised, added hormone free, organic, and artisanal. And, since embracing this philosophy, it's had tremendous impact on how we run our restaurants and our business. It's led us to serve more naturally raised meat than any other restaurant in the country, to push for more sustainable practices in produce farming, and to work with dairy suppliers to eliminate the use of added hormones from their operations.

Steve goes on to describe how he became aware of our current food industry practices with regard to pork production and his decision to take Chipotle down a more ethical path. Here is what you get when you eat at Chipotle:

Since 2001, all of the pork served in our restaurants has been from pigs raised in this humane, ecologically sustainable way. In addition to all of our pork and all of our chicken in the US, more than 50 percent of our beef is naturally raised. And we'll continue until all of our meats in all of our restaurants meet this standard.

Once again, naturally raised pork at Chipotle means:
· No antibiotics, ever.
· Letting pigs exhibit their natural behaviors in open pasture or
deeply-bedded pens.
· Vegetarian feed with no animal by-products.

When we began buying naturally raised pork in 2001, it made us take a fresh look at all of the food we serve. We called this idea "Food With Integrity," and wanted to know as much as we could about how animals are raised and vegetables are grown, we started to look at everything we buy and how we could make it better.

The next step after pork was naturally raised chicken.

The supply for this better chicken is scarce, so we started small, buying naturally raised chicken only for a few markets at first. That amount has grown over time as demand for naturally raised chicken has grown, and today all of the chicken we serve in the US is naturally raised.


To meet our naturally raised standard, chicken must:
· Never be given antibiotics.
· Have more room to move about than in conventional chicken
· Be vegetarian fed, never given animal by-products.


Food With Integrity is about taking the long view. It's about figuring out how we can use our size and influence to create enduring change. Today, more than fifty percent of our beef is from farmers across the country who meet the naturally raised criteria set forth in our Food With Integrity standards. Naturally raised beef costs more, but we think it's worth it. We're working overtime to make all of our beef, in all of our restaurants, naturally raised within the next few years.

When you order naturally raised beef at Chipotle, here is what you are getting (and not getting):
· No added growth hormones, ever.
· No antibiotics, ever.

· Vegetarian feed with no animal by-products.


Every year we increase the amount of organically grown beans we buy for our restaurants. Today, 30 percent of our beans are organic. We'd love it if all of our beans could be organic tomorrow. Unfortunately, it takes time for supply to meet the demand, but eventually we hope that all of our beans at all of our restaurants will be organic.


Agricultural chemical companies have formulated a synthetic hormone that is injected into a cow to artificially increase milk production. Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) is used in the United States, but banned elsewhere. Many farmers report that rBGH causes maladies such as udder infections and joint problems. Those synthetic growth hormones end up in the milk we drink.

We think some things should be sacred. Like dairy. The cheese and the sour cream at all of our restaurants is free of the synthetic growth hormone rBGH. We're not scientists, but ingesting hormones with our crispy tacos just doesn't seem like a good idea.

Chipotle's decision to use only rBGH-free dairy is just another step along our Food With Integrity journey - bringing you the very best ingredients from the very best sources.

In addition, Chipotle uses no eggs and can easily make vegetarian and vegan entrees. This all sounds pretty terrific to me! However, part of my resolution was to only eat meat from ethical sources as I define them. That means that, despite what Steve says, I need to know where he gets his meat. And there it is, at the bottom of the page! A list of all the (supposedly) ethical meat sources that Chipotle uses. I will admit that I did not go through all of them. I just picked a couple from each category and looked through their websites. In some cases, it was difficult to tell just how "ethical" the farms are. I found two examples, however, that I will describe in more detail.

The pigs at duBreton definitely seem better-off than standard industrial pigs. Just as Steve describes, they can mull about in a pasture or root through deeply-bedded pens. They are fed well with no dead animal parts to fill out their diets! These pigs clearly have not had their tails chopped off to make them more sensitive to the bites from other pigs packed too close together in a standard CAFO. However, these pigs are also not part of an ecosystem. They are raised on a pig farm. In addition, there appear to be other levels of ethical pig product that you can purchase from this company, which goes all the way down to something called "quality source". From the information on Chipotle's site, I think they buy the better pork, but it's still troubling that even the supposed good farm still uses some poor practices.

The other site I check was for Niman Ranch. This is another place I'd heard some positive whispers about and was happy to check it out. Their website says their cows are treated humanely, raised on sustainable farms and ranches, are not given hormones or antibiotics, and are fed a vegetarian diet. These seem like good things, although the mention of vegetarian-fed rather than grass-fed concerned me. Corn is, after all, a vegetable. However, it is not one cows are designed to eat. It makes them fat and sick and, without antibiotics, they die. So what is Niman ranch actually feeding their cows? I found the answer in their FAQ.

Why doesn't Niman Ranch produce only grass fed beef?

Contemplating grass fed beef might conjure up pastoral images, but in fact much of the cattle marketed today as "grass fed" spend their time in feedlots or feed yards being fed large amounts of hay, rice bran, almond hulls, and other assorted feeds that the USDA allows to be called "grass."

Our cattle are raised on pasture, spending an entire grazing season with their mothers. We finish our beef cattle on grain because doing so produces the best quality, which is always our objective. Niman Ranch cattle go to slaughter in peak condition, when they have stored the maximum amount of intramuscular fat that results in superbly flavorful and tender beef.

This is a curious answer. First, they suggest that grass-fed beef is actually not so great because things such as hay count as grass. I can't really evaluate this statement, but do recall from "The Omnivore's Dilemma" that there is a lot more to grass than we might naively think. I trust the grass farmers (as they refer to themselves) who make sure their pastures are chock full of all the different kinds of grass that their happy, foraging cows want to eat. Their cows eat hay. It's probably a good thing. The next part of the answer is even more discouraging. They think grass-fed is not that great a thing, so they feed their cows CORN. They let the calves graze for one season and then "grain finish" them. So... One season grazing on grass and the rest of their lives eating corn? A description of the cows' living conditions during this "finishing" phase seem strangely left out. I did a little background research, and it seems Niman Ranch used to be one of the best places to get your beef while still being available in some Bay Area grocery stores (super convenient!). Unfortunately, the ranch has been sold and it seems the new owners are not sticking with the original practices. It's really too bad. I wonder if Steve knows this...

So, what is the verdict on Chipotle? Their intentions are beyond reproach and their commitment to organic products, no antibiotics, and vegetarian feed are all commendable. Even though some of their food sources don't appear to live up to their lofty goals, certainly a step in the right direction should be supported. I would say it is clearly better to eat meat (or beans or even sour cream) at Chipotle than pretty much any other fast food chain. They aren't currently ethical enough for me to consider eating their meat, but I will definitely support their practices with my food dollars buy eating their veggie bowl. If you do nothing else to support ethical eating practices, I would ask that the next time you have a hankering for some fast food, skip McDs and pick up some Chipotle!

1 comment:

  1. Isn't McDonald's also pushing some big "better food" initiative? Maybe that just means they're moving off of "letter-graded meat" and using real eggs now. Niman using corn (which as you say makes the cows fat) ensures that maximal delicious marbling, so ... the incentive isn't there for them to let the cows graze.

    I think this gets to a really core issue. There is no standard for a lot (all?) of this terminology. My ethical and your ethical can be different, even 'organic' is woefully vague. Perhaps one of the most important things we can do as consumers is put our time and energy into pushing for a crystal-clear, verifiable terminology system. As it stands, you're going to need to not only read up on your sources, but monitor them periodically to make sure they haven't changed their ways.