THE BLOG

My (Ongoing) Beef with Chipotle

09/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

First let me say that in the pantheon of fast food, I think Chipotle is the lesser of countless evils -- and I am not even saying that it is evil. I'm just, in my ongoing beef with them, questioning whether what they are doing is a marketing strategy or genuine belief. My hunch is that it is a marketing strategy.

While I could say -- like the Stonybrook Farms yogurt mogul does in the movie Food, Inc. -- that it's better to have big biz on the sustainability bandwagon than not, I'm not so sure that is true. I am afraid that when the message gets distorted, and used for people's capitalist goals, that the consumer is mislead. People lose site of what is important, and why it was important to begin with. My beef, essentially, is this: if you truly believe that something is bad -- in this case, the beef raised in the industrial American food system -- bad for the planet, bad for our health, and bad for the animals, then how can you justify serving it 65% of the time? I also wanted to get a clear answer on Chipotle's supposed relationship to McDonald's. I pushed for an answer. Below is the correspondence between myself and Chipotle's public relations agent.

ME: Can you see if you can get an answer from Chipotle regarding their relationship to Mcdonald's?

PR GAL: ... They had McDonald's come in as an investor (but retained control of the menu, sourcing, etc.) and McDonald's helped them grow to 500 units. Chipotle went public in 2006 with the second largest restaurant IPO (Boston Market was 1st) and McDonald's sold all their shares at that point. Now they are up to over 860 restaurants.

(And then she very efficiently offers to have me talk to a Chipotle rep, as she will continue to do throughout our correspondence.)

ME: People -- not just me -- seemed a bit disturbed by the 35% factor. Can they answer to that? Like, why are they selling meat raised against the principles that they believe in instead of just not offering meat in regions where humanely-raised beef isn't available?

PR GAL: ....At the moment, there isn't enough naturally raised beef available. If they could be serving 100 percent naturally raised beef, they would be (just as they are with chicken and pork).

ME: I understand that -- but why not just offer chicken or pork -- no beef. Instead of bad beef. It doesn't make sense to me.

PR GAL: Here's some additional info from Chipotle on this. Also, here's a link to a great piece on Nightline that details Chipotle's work in this arena as well as the challenges that remain.

From the beginning, we served pork, chicken and beef; none of which was naturally raised. As we have embraced this quest for food from more sustainable sources (which began 10 years ago), we have been moving as quickly as we can to those better sources. Today, that includes all of our pork and chicken; about 60 percent of our beef; all of our dairy products made with milk from cows that are never treated with the synthetic hormone BGH; increasing amounts of local and organic produce.

The problem is, at our size and scale (we have nearly 900 restaurants and feed a half a million people every day) the supply of these better ingredients isn't available. There is no switch we can throw and be doing this over night. It is an incremental revolution and we have made, and continue to make tremendous progress. But we are doing that in a system that has swung so far toward the industrial and are challenged with getting the things we need in the quantities we need.

But I still don't get why they don't just not serve the beef.

Throughout, she continued to offer me the opportunity to talk to someone at Chipotle. Which I really should-and will-do. But I just fear... It's the kind of question that sets me up to be disappointed.