"Yeah, but Chipotle is owned by McDonald's."
That statement bothers me much less now than it used to. Although McDonald's was once the majority investor in Chipotle, they sold their entire interest back in 2006 after Chipotle went public. But even now, more than seven years later, people love to share this information more than almost any other fact about Chipotle.
While Chipotle and McDonald's share an industry and many customers, we are two companies with fundamentally different visions. The startling incongruity between the company that most people consider to be the epitome of fast food and a company like Chipotle makes the McDonald's-Chipotle relationship a very sharable nugget of information. Just look at the comments about Chipotle on sites like Facebook or YouTube. As detractors invoke what they deem the ultimate repudiation of our more sustainable practices by saying "yeah, but they're owned by McDonald's," you'll see just as many passionate Chipotle fans hastily correcting them.
But this isn't about Chipotle vs. McDonald's. Instead, it's an indication that people are more aware than ever of the impact that food has on people, animals and the environment -- and that McDonald's and Chipotle exemplify two very different approaches to these issues.
The ongoing debate about our food system is complex and often emotionally charged. Some argue that we need highly processed foods and modern industrial agriculture techniques, like large animal confinement operations and GMOs, in order to feed the world. Others believe that the hidden costs and health risks associated with those things are not worth any potential gains.
Five years ago when I joined the Chipotle marketing team, people were far less interested in where food comes from than they are today. Since then, films like "Food, Inc." and writers like Michael Pollan and Jonathan Safran Foer have brought the realities of our byzantine and deeply troubling system of industrial food production to light.
If I've learned anything since then, it is how much there is left to learn.
I've made many visits to hog farms, dairy farms, chicken houses, cattle ranches, feedlots and even to sunflower harvests amid the bitter North Dakota winds. What I've come to understand through this process is that farmers are neither "good" nor "bad." There is simply more than one way of doing things.
I've spoken with extremely dedicated and passionate farmers who truly believe that it's best for the animals to spend their entire lives indoors within massive confinement operations. I've also spent many days with incredibly knowledgeable farmers and ranchers like Bill Niman, founder of the pioneering meat company Niman Ranch, who has probably taught me more than anyone else about the complexities of industrial agriculture and the challenges of more sustainable alternatives.
Here's what I know for sure: There's no simple answer and there are many opportunities for improvement. That's why we spend much of our time at Chipotle trying to get people thinking about where their food comes from: Our short animated films "Back to the Start" and "The Scarecrow" are examples of how we're trying to spur curiosity about food production and preparation.
But we also recognize that Chipotle is far from perfect. We still have a long way to go when it comes to improving our own ingredients. Chipotle is a large company and in many ways takes part in the same industrial food system we aim to change. Finding large-scale supplies of better ingredients is a formidable challenge, and the larger we get, the more difficult it becomes. However, that doesn't mean we should stop sharing our vision for the future -- even if it is a long-term one.
Yet sharing Chipotle's vision and making people curious goes only so far. The next step is feeding that curiosity with information. That's why we have partnered with the Huffington Post to create Food for Thought. Here, the editorial team at the Huffington Post will bring together information from diverse perspectives in order to help people better understand the complexities and challenges of producing and preparing the food we all eat every day.
Real change comes when people are empowered with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions.