Chipotle: We’re Conflicted

You don’t see many real fur coats in San Francisco, at least not where I’m likely to grab lunch. To see one on the woman in front of me in line at Chipotle—a chain whose website highlights the sorry plight of animals in factory farms—was distinctly odd.

“It looks so warm and snuggly!” said the cashier, eyeing the plush brown coat. “Thanks,” the woman in fur said. “I’m probably going to hell, though.” She sounded guilty; conflicted, anyway.

There are plenty of us who feel conflicted about Chipotle, even if we don’t own a single fur garment. The chain whose motto is “food with integrity” has come under fire from activists like Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers, say, for failing to sign its fair food agreement to support farmworkers. Earlier this week, though, Good’s Erica Grieder stood up for the rapidly growing chain.

“Chipotle is the first big fast-food chain to make food quality an integral part of its branding,” Grieder writes in an essay titled “The Ethical Burrito: Chipotle Makes Fast-Food Nation Sustainable.” “As such, it’s helping to buoy the market for ethically sourced food.”

Grieder’s correct about one thing: Chipotle has certainly done much to drag awareness about the wretched lives of food animals out of the subculture of animal advocacy sites and into the mall. Though Chipotle spares visitors to its site the grainy pirate footage of poultry workers hacking chickens’ beaks, it condemns by example, with an image, say, of wide-eyed piglets in a field, without a single hog confinement facility in sight. “Many pigs are raised on factory farms and don't have a great life,” Chipotle’s website explains. “Between the mistreatment of the pigs and the massive amount of waste produced, these farms aren't good for anyone.”

Instead, Chipotle sources its pork from Niman Ranch, an aggregator of livestock from farms that agree to abide by certain standards (no hormones or antibiotics, for example). “It’s not necessarily the idyllic fantasy of a small farm,” says Marissa Guggiana, author of Primal Cuts: Cooking with America's Best Butchers and cofounder of the Butcher’s Guild. “But for a chain like Chipotle it’s excellent, really, compared to the meat being served in most fast-food chains.”

Which is precisely my dilemma with Chipotle.

If fast food corporations have to exist, better they should be a burrito chain that at least acknowledges the horrors of the conventional food system, committing to meat that’s something significantly better than feedlot Frankenmeat, even if it’s far from the ideal of placid livestock fattening slowly on pasture.

Still, if I want a burrito, it isn’t Chipotle’s Location Finder I’m likely to hit up first, but Fruitvale, a neighborhood in my hometown of Oakland, California, jammed with loncheras and small-bore taquerias. But though the food at La Gran Chiquita on International Boulevard, say, is better than any one of the half-dozen Chipotle meals I’ve ever eaten, there’s one problem: The meat there isn’t much better, on the sustainability scale, than the stuff at Taco Bell.

“Honestly,” Guggiana says, “when it comes to taco trucks, I have a 'don’t ask, don’t tell' policy.” Most mom-and-pop taquerias source inexpensive meats from Spanish-speaking distributors. When it comes down to it, I’m with Guggiana, who says she’d rather eat food that’s the result of family recipes or cultural tradition, instead of products filtered through a corporation’s business model. And obviously, there are worse business models than Chipotle’s.

“We can’t get wrapped up in things being perfect,” Guggiana says. For some of us in line at Chipotle, we're willing to extend that to burritos.

Image source: Chipotle.com

John Birdsall is senior editor at CHOW. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.