Can Chipotle practice what it preaches? On consumer expectations, production and waste in the current Fast Food industry


Yesterday I had a mean craving for some Spaghetti Carbonara, the bedrock of which is pancetta, eggs and cheese. I give a lot of thought to my food and where it comes from, so all sorts of dilemmas and decisions were issued forth. I went to my local deli, where the prices are high, but the eggs are farm fresh, and not in a ™ sort of way.

I asked about the cost of a dozen eggs, and the man behind the counter piped up: “those are mine, from my chickens, and you’ll wanna buy ‘em now. They’re about to molt to prepare for the winter, and production will really be down for a while.” He shrugged, as if to say “hey you want naturally raised? Well, this is the whole enchilada.”

I felt a stronger kinship with these hens; if I were shedding all my feathers, I don’t think I’d much feel like heading to work either. I admit it’s a privilege that I’m able to spend almost $6 a dozen on eggs. I’m feeding only myself; I’m employed and educated; and I’m privy to the kind of information that makes a person consider these things. In the United States, we’re not allowed to film inside a CAFO, even though this is the age of information. Is the treatment of most factory farmed hens “common knowledge” in the way of say, the direction of the lake or the first president of the United States? I’d argue that it’s not. Not to mention the health consequences to humans or the planet.

Chipotle’s animated “The Scarecrow” commercial has already garnered over 6.5 million views and is keeping news outlets (and commenters) abuzz. Set to the haunting vocals of Fiona Apple’s cover of “Pure Imagination”, from the 1971 classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, the story line vilifies factory farming in a way that emotionally resonates.

In this sense, there is no doubt the ad was successful, and honestly, no matter their motives, I am glad for their big, national voice in this incredibly important dialogue. But where the waters grow murkier, and more interesting, is in the ability of a national fast food company like Chipotle to truly use the methods that stand in angelic contrast to mechanized farming, and remain what they are: a legitmately competitive national fast food company.

Because the missing links between the utopian future imagined by the protagonist scarecrow—realized only when he leaves his factory job and begins tending a garden in his backyard, which yields a Chipotle burrito that is conveniently vegetarian (but that’s an entirely different essay)—are very much worth exploring.

For one, consider my encounter at the deli. Sure I was able to purchase the eggs for my dinner, but what if I were a restaurant and I came to get them wholesale while the hens were molting. What if I ran a diner, where people expect scrambled eggs daily? If I were a farm to table restaurant, something currently only affordable by a segment of the population, the missing eggs might be understood. But can you imagine a McDonald’s not having any Egg McMuffins? Can you imagine anything being “sold out” at McDonalds at all?

The fast food formula relies on consistency, abundance, low prices and, of course, speed. The faster, bigger, cheaper and more like the last time, the better for a company in this bracket.

Nevermind that "natural" has no regulated standards
Nevermind that “natural” has no regulated standards.

Chipotle is an interesting company. Like Subway, they straddle the line between fast food and something a little different, a little healthier. They were the first company to label GMOs in their ingredients, and the devil at the wheel, McDonalds, divested from them in 2006. Their signs read things like “Get antibiotics from your doctor, not your chicken.”They offer vegetarian and vegan options.

But people still expect what they expect from them, and they are still a fast food restaurant. Fast food in our current cultural climate, doesn’t seem to be compatible with the production schedule of a small, local farm (kale burritos in the winter?). It is higher quality, more expensive and less risky over the long term, but the natural cycle of things could throw off a business model based on consistency, and throw Chipotle into a tailspin, financially.

What ensures against these shortages and deviations are hormones, antibiotics and repugnant, tightly packed conditions. They minimize cost, ensure growth and production, and when animals get sick off the grains they do not have the digestive systems to process, antibiotics, which we then inherit, are fed to them. Not a pretty picture. But one, in which, perhaps a McDonalds type place can exist given its breadth and plans for constant growth.

A coworker of mine brought up an interesting point about food waste: chiefly that restaurants, schools, grocery stores, and even farms, waste an incredible amount of food, and if we could somehow factor this waste out of the production stream, then we could afford to channel our financial resources into a more ethical and higher quality farm—with less excess.

In his words, the current model of most food establishments is fueled by a production system that is very wasteful of food (30% of produce never makes it off the farm; and 40% of household groceries are tossed out due to an unregulated sell by/use by system that is confusing to consumers), and in order to absorb the cost of all this waste, it is necessary to purchase inventory at a lower price.

This is exciting from a problem solving standpoint. How can we change the waste stream—making it smaller from farm to fridge to table, so that restaurants and schools can afford to invest in sustainably produced ingredients? Currently health codes, overstocking, confusing labeling about when food is truly expired, as well as demands for cosmetically uniform produce create a loss of edible food that is enormous, and makes the solution to the United States hunger problem look like the world’s biggest “duh.” Some interesting thoughts on reducing waste in the food supply chain here on the NRDC blog.

As consumer demand for practices change—which is hopefully an effect of Chipotle’s disturbing ad—the price for produce and meat at the slow food level will lower, as the “natural” effects of a capitalist marketplace take hold.

What we hope, is that eventually the current fast food model, one that runs on exploitation of workers, animals and soil, will be priced out, and demanded less—eventually reaching zero—and the entire industry will change.

But demand isn’t just about consumers wanting more ethically, sustainably raised livestock and produce. Is this perhaps an issue that falls under Zizek’s “coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol…” complaint about modern society, (albeit taken in quite a different context)? It’s also about how our staggering demand for fast food affects the nature of the markets farmers must produce for. It’s a case of taking a closer look at the game, as well as the players involved.

In a New Yorker article on the Chipotle ad, the author cites McDonald’s annual consumption of beef at 1 billion pounds. “Despite the rising interest, the vast majority of U.S. meat is still conventionally raised…Even if it wanted to adopt Chipotle’s sourcing standards, the market couldn’t begin to meet its demand.” But I’d wager it’s not just that there aren’t enough ethical/sustainable farms, it’s that our demand for meat is staggering, and perhaps, no matter the supplier, simply unsustainable as a longterm model. Maybe we can’t have our ethically raised meat and our fast food menus (unaltered) too.

Ultimately, Chipotle is a publicly traded company, and is beholden to its investors. Which means profit margins are the bottom line and absorbing higher costs of production, whether it’s paying workers higher wages or supporting farms that use more time-intensive methods for long-term planetary welfare won’t be a fiscal priority until we make it so that it can’t be any other way. Whether that’s supporting businesses and farms that do not use antibiotics or grain feed; thinking critically about our expectations; having a hand in community and backyard farms that exist outside the industrialized system; or educating ourselves more thoroughly on expiration dates and produce knowledge to cut back on food waste, we can steer away from a “Fast Food Nation” and toward a food system that serves us and future generations—and not the other way around.