By Daren Williams, NCBA Communications
Sometimes I don’t need a cup of coffee to wake up in the morning. Natural adrenaline has the same effect. And that’s what woke me up this morning. During my normal routine of checking Facebook while enjoying my morning coffee, I came across several posts from friends talking about the latest Chipotle marketing effort, a You Tube video promoting Chipotle’s “Food With Integrity” program called “Back to the Start.” So I clicked the link and watched. As Willie Nelson began singing Cold Play’s “The Scientist,” while an animated farm morphed into a feedyard and then a factory, my blood began boiling.
Don’t even get me started on Willie. Besides butchering one of my favorite Cold Play songs, he is no friend of farmers and ranchers. But we’ll save that for another rant.
Chipotle’s “Back to the Start” video is a gross mischaracterization of how animals are raised to provide high quality, nutritious meat for American consumers. As cartoon hogs are enclosed in pens and barns that become factories they are pumped full of pills and green slime (presumably representing antibiotics which are used to keep animals healthy and growth promotants which help reduce the amount of land, water, feed and fuel needed to raise animals to produce food). Pipes from the factories then dump the green slime into the river as trucks are loaded with pink cubes of meat. Ah yes, factory farming, that mythical entity that exists in the minds of food elitists.
Here’s a dose of reality, folks. I live on a one-quarter acre lot in a home that takes up about one-fifth of an acre. We are one of the few families on the block with a garden. Every summer my wife grows enough tomatoes and herbs to keep our family stocked with fresh salsa for a month. But if forced to provide food for our family of four for a year, we’d be in a world of hurt. Now back to the movie.
As the video closes with Willie wailing “I’m going back to the start,” the despondent farmer has a sudden change of heart, knocks down his barns and releases his animals to roam freely across the countryside while he loads a wooden crate on a Chipotle truck. The implication is clear, the family farmer has been replaced by a factory and you can no longer trust the source of your food unless you eat at Chipotle.
It’s a great story, complete with all the elements of drama: a villain (the “man” behind the cold steel walls of the factory), a victim (the farmer) and the conquering hero (Chipotle, of course) who helps the victim overcome his oppressor. Good fiction, but the fact is farmers, ranchers and consumers are the real victims in this story.
Chipotle’s “Food with Integrity” marketing campaign lacks the very element they claim their food has: Integrity. Their own website describes the program this way: “It means that whenever possible we use meat from animals raised without the use of antibiotics or added hormones. And it means that we source organic and local produce when practical.” Whenever possible? When practical? What does that mean?
A glimpse into Chipotle’s annual report offers some insight:
“We do, however, face challenges associated with pursuing Food With Integrity. For example, current economic conditions have led to natural chicken and steak supply shortages. It can take longer to identify and secure relationships with suppliers meeting our criteria, and there are higher costs and other risks associated with purchasing naturally raised or sustainably grown ingredients. The growing time for naturally raised meat and sustainably grown vegetables can be longer. Herd losses can also be greater when animals are not treated with antibiotics and hormones and field losses can be higher for organically grown produce. Given the costs associated with natural and sustainable farming practices, and recently due to decreased demand as a result of the weak economic environment, many large suppliers have not found it economical to pursue business in this area.”
That’s a lot of finger pointing. But is it true? Certainly it is true that the growing time is longer and herd losses are greater when you don’t treat sick animals and they die. It is also true, therefore, that the cost is higher to produce these products. That is economics 101.
That about the claim that they simply cannot find enough farmers and ranchers to meet their criteria? When I posted a link to Amanda Radke’s BEEF Daily blog on Facebook, I got a lot of comments from farmers and ranchers who are upset with this marketing effort at their expense. But one in particular provided some insight into Chipotle’s claim that they simply cannot source enough “natural” food to truly meet their goal of selling “Food with Integrity.”
“About a year ago we approached Chipotle with a proposal to provide them with a substantial amount of beef raised under a pasture fed protocol that we developed. Chipotle seemed generally interested at first and they have right on their website that they would source additional product both locally and under these ‘higher, more sustainable standards’ if the product was available. But when push came to shove and we talked about price, which was a slight premium above the commodity market, they lost interest quickly.”
Isn’t that interesting? It seems that instead of “Food With Integrity,” Chipotle might want to consider “Marketing With Integrity.” I’m not sure how the Chipotle marketing team can rationalize making claims they want to do better but can’t, even when they have farmers and ranchers who would be willing to meet their standards if they were willing to pay for the increased price of production.
But if it is true that they can’t source enough “natural” or “local” food then how they can rationalize releasing a video which disparages the food they readily admit they still serve to their customers? That is exactly what they do in this video. Is this just clever marketing or is Chipotle pulling the wool over our eyes?
Let me be clear, I am NOT calling for a boycott of Chipotle. They sell a lot of beef, pork and poultry raised by hardworking family farmers and ranchers. But if you choose to eat at Chipotle, please register your complaint about their deceptive marketing practices. Submit a comment on the “Talk To Us” section of their website and they promise a response from a “real, live, friendly, human in a reasonable amount of time.” Be sure to let them know you eat at your local Chipotle. Surely they will listen to a paying customer.
Nor is it my intention is not to bash organic, natural or local food production. All food production models fit in today's agriculture. We have members who employ all of these production models. However, making false claims about the safety, nutritional value and environmental benefits of various food production models is deceptive and cannot be tolerated. The beef community must continue to work together to maximize the resources we have in this country, grass pastures and abundant grain supplies, to raise more beef using fewer resources like land, water, feed and fuel. There is room for every production model in this community, as long as we work together to meet consumer expectations, rather than exploiting them.