Monday, February 20, 2012

That Heartwarming Chipotle Commercial and the Less-Fuzzy Truths Behind It

So it's been exactly one year and two days since the last post. In the time since I've been e-gone, I have been busy with these things:
-Going to Norway for seven weeks
-Learning Norwegian
-Internship at Scribner
-Finishing my undergraduate thesis
-Finishing my undergraduate degree
-Starting aerial acrobatic classes
-Reading Scribner's about-to-be-released The American Way of Eating
-Becoming angry enough about the food system to remember why I started Eighty Sixed in the first place.

Through a series of bullet-points, you have the reason for my return. Though I've been intending to write this new-first post for a while, I've been having trouble finding the perfect topic to start off with (procrastinating probably enters into the equation too). After resubscribing to my foodie RSS feeds and scouring the internet for the perfect story, it was a commercial that finally led me back here to blogspot.

This Chipotle commercial, aired during the recent Grammy's, has been getting a lot of press for the way it depicts both factory farming and their commitment to "Food With Integrity".

While I'm more than pleased by the idea that a fast food restaurant is striving toward (and publicizing) sustainability and humane practices, I was a little wary of the PR-speak of not only their website but much of the press surrounding this article. A major news network ran an article with a quote from a spokesman who claimed, "all of the meat we serve is naturally raised." Even Chipotle's own website says that this statement is untrue.

If you took the time to read Chipotle's 2010 annual report, you'd know that in the 2nd quarter, naturally raised chicken was "no longer being served in certain a result of ongoing supply challenges" and that only 80% of their restaurants served naturally raised steak. Though the commercial focuses on returning to the agrarian ideal of a farm, Chipotle "generally [does] not purchase raw materials directly from farmers or other suppliers, but have selected and approved all of the suppliers from whom ingredients are purchased for our restaurants."

The 2011 report is about the same. "Continuing to serve naturally raised meats in all of our restaurants is one of our primary goals, but we have and will continue to face challenges in doing so. Some of our restaurants served conventionally raised chicken or steak for much of 2011, a few markets reverted to conventionally raised beef in early 2012, and more of our restaurants may periodically serve conventionally raised meats in the future due to supply constraints."

Yet, I doubt that any of Chipotle's restaurants are taking down their "naturally raised" signs when they revert to using 5, 20, or 100% conventionally raised meats. Unfortunately, this term is all advertising—much like the factory-farmed eggs with a photo of a free-range paradise on the label. There is no "natural" or "humane" certification. So while Chipotle's Food With Integrity program asks for antibiotic and hormone-free, vegetarian fed, humanely handled meats, it's up to them to decide whether and how often to supply it to the consumer.

None of this is to say that, in the midst of other fast food giants, Chipotle isn't taking steps in a good direction. Simply that we should remember that flashy or sentimental advertising is just another PR statement put out by a company who wants you to buy their products; not the whole story. Frankly, with all the talk this ad generated, I'm surprised no one else is feeling a little skeptical.

I want to give this chain a nod of approval for what they're trying to do. I'd also like to commemorate the fact that humane and sustainable practices are such selling point that they can make revenue climb from 1,835,922 to 2,269,548 between 2010 and 2011. But that any changes like this, no matter how incomplete or opaque, can make us excited enough to forget to ask further questions is a sad commentary on the way the fast food industry is currently being run.