Chipotle & Grass-Fed Beef

Ever since we saw that animated video with Willie Nelson singing Cold Play's "The Scientist,"we've been Googling like crazy to try to separate the facts from the feel-good (and extremely effective) marketing.

Even before the video came out, critics have questioned whether Chipotle's ingredients are really healthier and more sustainably-produced as claimed. Check out Amanda Radke's blog post over at Beef Central for a taste of sour grapes. Radke's never met a feedlot she didn't like and the comments that she allows to appear below her post (many pro-Chipotle comments seemed to disappear soon after they were posted) lay out some of the allegations that the burrito makers are all hat, no cattle. For example, there's this bit of indignation from a fellow who goes by the web handle of Daren Williams who runs the Beltway Beef Blog.

What bothers me most about this video, and other Chipotle marketing campaigns, is the hypocrisy. When we called them on their billboards, placemats and other materials bashing conventional food production they readily admitted that a majority of the meat in their burritos is NOT raised “naturally” (meaning no antibiotics used to keep the animals healthy or hormones supplemented to reduce the amount of land, water and feed needed to raise animals). They said their goal is to get there but they are not there yet. So essentially these campaigns imply that a majority of the food they sell in their own restaurants is unhealthy and bad for the planet. All in the name of clever marketing. Chipotle marketing is at best hypocritical, if not unethical or illegal.

Hypocritical? Unethical? Illegal? Let's take a look, shall we? What does Chipotle actually say about how their beef is produced? Their slogan is "Food With Integrity," and here's what their website says about the beef they cram in their burritos:

When we started purchasing naturally raised beef in 1999 we could hardly find any suppliers that met our standards. We’ve put a lot of work into poking, prodding, convincing, and occasionally applying guilt to ranchers in order to get more and more suppliers to meet our naturally raised standards.

Today, thanks to increased demand, we purchase 85 percent of our beef from ranches that meet or exceed our naturally raised standards. We're still working on it, and we won't rest until 100% of our beef is naturally raised.

This is why we love Chipotle. They're fighting the good fight, not perfect, but moving the ball down the field towards the touchdown line of sustainable food. As beef producers, however, we're interested in what exactly Chipotle's beef standards are.

As an aside, we might quibble with their ungrammatical use of "naturally raised." That would be the compound adjective "naturally-raised" that Chipotle's wanting to use, same way that the only kind of beef Estancia sells is grass-fed and pasture-raised, not grass fed and pasture raised.

But transcending the language nerd inside us and moving on to the substance of Chipotle's claim, what do they mean by "naturally raised" beef? To us (and to the average consumer, we think) that would mean pasture-raised, grass-fed, never-a-feedlot. It would mean cattle eating what cattle evolved to eat where they evolved to eat it. Is that what you get at Chipotle?

It's very hard to tell from searching on the web. The signal to noise ratio is very low. Here's a blog post from Fast Company that praises Chipotle for using "sustainable meat," quoting an interview with Chipotle C.E.O. & Founder Steve Ells from this interview with www.smartplanet.com. But nowhere in the interview does Ells say that Chipotle's beef is grass-fed or pasture-raised. Is this how rumors on the Internet spread? It's kind of an echo chamber that distorts and amplifies, isn't it? Ells clearly has his heart in the right place, but the devil is in the details. So we gotta wonder if Chipotle's cows are in the pasture.

We found this awesome blog that compares Chipotle burritos to those from a rival chain called Moe's that does use grass-fed beef from Uruguay and New Zealand. We'll take a closer look at Moe's in a future blog post.

We finally stumbled on this panel discussion that included Heidi Wederquist, Director of Quality Assurance and Food Safety for Chipotle. According to her bio, "Wederquist works with Chipotle’s food suppliers to help assure quality and food safety at each point within the supply chain. She also oversees the Local Produce program." Luckily, someone asked the burning question and received a semi-straight answer from Ms. Wederquist:

Q: Does Chipotle purchase grass-fed and finished beef? If so, how does it re-educate its customers and chefs given that grass-fed beef tastes different than typical corn-fed beef?

A: Chipotle is currently purchasing some grass-fed beef for our steak and Barbacoa. In Barbacoa, we do not see a flavor difference between grassfed and naturally raised. Our Barbacoa is slowly braised for hours, so it is always tender. For steak preparation, we show our restaurants how to give the grassfed beef special attention on the grill, since it cooks more quickly.

Some grass-fed is encouraging.

In 2007, Chipotle ran another very effective marketing campaign touting its zero tolerance for meat from animals treated with antibiotics. We've made it clear where Estancia stands on antibiotic use. What's Chipotle's position today? Has it changed? Does naturally-raised meat mean animals raised with no hormones or antibiotics? Is that the extent of the definition?

Again, it's hard to say just from relying on our friend, Mr. Google. A recent company press release has CEO Ells testifying before Congress in support of the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which is cool. In the same press release, Ells seems to say that the pork Chipotle serves is produced without antibiotics, which is also great:

Ells presentation drew on his own experiences and Chipotle's food supply practices that have the company looking for more sustainable sources for all of the ingredients it uses. Ells calls this philosophy "Food with Integrity" and it is how Chipotle is changing the way people think about and eat fast food. Chipotle began this quest more than 10 years ago after Ells decided to start serving naturally raised pork (from pigs raised on open pasture or in deeply bedded barns, without the use of antibiotics or added hormones) in all Chipotle restaurants.

But what about the beef? Chipotle's efforts to move towards sourcing more sustainable, healthy, and ethical meat is laudable, but by not being more transparent the chain undermines its efforts and opens itself up to criticism that it's nothing more than a savvy marketing machine duping gullible consumers who care about where their food comes from and how it's produced.

Tomorrow when we have a chance we're going to ping the P.R. people at Chipotle and try to get some straight answers about their beef. Tune in to find out the truth about what's inside your beloved burritos--same bat-time, same bat-channel!