Thoughts on Chipotle, Antibiotics & Where We Go From Here

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In March when news of a sign spotted in a Chipotle Mexican Grill location in Kentucky was making rounds I spoke with Chris Arnold, the company’s Communications Director and Spokesperson. The sign — which said simply, “Due to supply shortages, this store is currently serving conventionally raised steak” — was displayed on the restaurant’s counter and a customer snapped a picture. The picture showed up on the Foodstuffs Foodlink Facebook page, migrated to a blog or two, and created quite a bit of buzz on Twitter. Chipotle was a divisive corporate figure in the farm world long before Panera started making waves so I wasn’t surprised their sign and the corporate road blocks it signified were hot news. Rather, because I had previously looked into Chipotle’s meat supplier requirements I was curious if the shortage had been at least partially self-inflicted.

Some of Chipotle’s supplier standards are… well, standard. They’re reasonable components of any commercial farm. Others are rather quixotic. Among the latter type is the requirement suppliers use processing facilities “that have been inspected or certified for food safety by an accredited 3rd party.” The shortage of processing facilities in the U.S. in general is a well-established problem in the niche farming industry. (And make no mistake the rest of Chipotle’s supplier requirements mean the company is working exclusively with niche operations.) A lack of access to processors has been cited as the reason more than one small farmer has gone out of business and we’re talking just regular state or federally accredited processors, not third party accredited. The latter, the type Chipotle insists farmers use, are even harder to come by. For instance, the nearest third party accredited processor to our farm is nearly 100 miles away. Trucking alone would add a considerable amount of overhead to our operation, quickly becoming prohibitively expensive. And we’re among the lucky ones, we have the choice to truck the hogs 100 miles one way to the processor, drive 100 miles back empty, and then make the 200 mile roundtrip again to pick up the pork of which Chipotle would do us the favor of purchasing “certain cuts.” For many farmers a third party accredited processor isn’t even an option. Which is why I wanted to know if this (or any other) requirement was directly responsible for the Kentucky steak shortage.

Arnold didn’t deny it, but he didn’t confirm it, either. Instead, he told me the small signs are standard company policy whenever they run out of an ingredient that meets their “Food with Integrity” standards — regardless of the cause. He also divulged that maintaining a sufficient beef supply has been a source of ongoing struggle for Chipotle. Something that is reflected on their “Food with Integrity” pages where they admit they have “occasionally [applied] guilt to ranchers in order to get more and more suppliers to meet [their] naturally raised standards.” This week on-again off-again news of the chain’s apparent consideration of looser standards for meat suppliers seems to all but confirm what I suspected five months ago: Chipotle’s own requirements are getting in the way of their good food mission — even if it wasn’t the one I’d originally honed in on.

This time the story broke on Bloomberg news, and was apparently as reliable as news gets at the time. Arnold himself had provided an email statement which said Chipotle would be lifting it’s never-ever policy on antibiotics in beef herds, permitting producers to treat animals with antibiotics as needed for illness without removing them from the herd. A ban on sub-therapeutic uses, such as use for prevention of illness and for promoting growth would remain in effect. Later however, Arnold rescinded his comments, telling NPR he’d inadvertently given Bloomberg incorrect information. He confirmed Chipotle is considering such a change, but said nothing had been decided yet.

Throughout the mere hours-long PR whirlwind two causes for the potential policy change have been cited. One is the on-going supply chain shortage Arnold and I discussed this spring, the other is whether or not such a “strict… antibiotic protocol is best for the animals.” Both highlight a, if not the, fundamental problem with our food system: a complete and utter lack of confidence.

And not the kind of confidence that can be classified as blind faith, I’d argue that’s the kind that got us here to begin with, but the simple kind of confidence that says, “Hey Farmer, you’ve been doing this for thirty years. I bet you’re capable and knowledgable and maybe you could help me understand why you do that.” Instead of, “Hey Farmer, I watched a 90 minute documentary and was licked by a cow at the county fair, listen to everything I know about how wrong you are.” No one watches a documentary on heart attacks and insists their heart surgeon do the bypass their way.

And before you say farming is nothing like medicine, allow me to invite you to come farrow with me, come castrate with me, come commit every waking minute and fiber of your being to the doctoring of a pig only to lose it and have to bury it anyway with me. Come learn how the same exact symptoms can mean a dozen different diseases with a dozen different treatment protocols, how choosing the wrong one can be the difference between life and death, and how sometimes it’s only after death that you can hope to learn which one it really was. Come learn that that only sure way to tell if a sow is really bred is with an ultrasound, and that for most hog farmers their paycheck is directly dependent on being able to accurately calculate body composition while the hog is still alive.

Not the kind of confidence that can be classified as blind faith, just the kind that realizes even seemingly simple matters can be rather complex and that the people who have dedicated their lives to understanding them might have something to offer to the conversation. Because I think we can build a pretty strong argument that the complete decentralization of farm decision-making was a really horrible idea from the start. The running of a farm isn’t something you can crowd source from people whose deepest education on the subject came with a bag of popcorn. And Chipotle’s inability to source products that meet their utopian standards is a glaring example of that.

Consumers should absolutely have a voice in how their food is produced. And they do. Our greatest modern mistake as a nation of eaters is having believed the folks that told us we didn’t. Because the truth is, farmers have been listening. They started listening at the birth of agriculture and never stopped. Throughout the entire era of agricultural industrialization they were listening — which is exactly what led to the industrialization. They were listening when we wanted leaner meat, they were listening when we wanted cheaper fruit, they were listening when we wanted more shelf-stable vegetables. They were listening the entire time, and they delivered! Now we’re disgruntled that they delivered without telling us everything they had to do in order to meet our demands and we’re demanding more, but opposite. And farmers are still listening, but some of the whims and wishes go to such a degree that it’s virtually impossible to fulfill. Forget about reasonable.

So as both a farmer and a consumer, I propose that perhaps it’s time for the other half to listen. Perhaps it’s time to stand down, not entirely, not with that blind faith we talked about earlier, but with a modicum of confidence in our fellow man, that he is capable and knowledgeable in his field. Because having both farmer and consumer inside me I can tell you that the two sides do not have to be at odds with one another. There is middle ground, but we’re going to have to start using a two-way radio to gently direct each other there. The bullhorn’s not working. Even Chipotle knows that.

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