Chipotle is walking its “Food with Integrity” talk with the decision this week to eliminate carnitas from the menu at about a third of its 1,800 U.S. locations, after discovering that one of its pork suppliers violated the company’s animal-welfare policies.
“Without this pork, we cannot get enough pork that meets our Responsibly Raised standard for all our restaurants, and we will not be able to serve carnitas in some locations,” Chipotle said in a statement, though the company declined to name the supplier in question.
“This is fundamentally an animal-welfare decision and is rooted in our unwillingness to compromise our standards,” PR director Chris Arnold said in an e-mail. He said conventionally raised pigs generally do not have access to the outdoors, spend their lives in densely crowded buildings, live on hard, slatted floors and are given antibiotics to keep them from getting sick — some of the standard practices in factory farming that the company highlights in its moving “Back to the Start” and “The Scarecrow” videos.
“We would rather not serve pork at all than serve pork from animals raised in that way,” Arnold said.
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Chipotle, which claims all of its pork has been sourced sustainably since 2001, says sales of carnitas, or braised pork, more than doubled after it made the switch, even though the menu price increased by $1 — carnitas is now the protein of choice of about 6 percent of Chipotle diners.
Arnold said Chipotle is exploring options to boost its ethically raised pork supply, but that replacing the lost supply will “take some time.” Chipotle’s largest pork supplier, Niman Ranch, told Bloomberg it is sending roughly 20 percent more pork this week after the chain asked for a bigger shipment to compensate for the lost volume.
Its animal-welfare standards — and those for pork, in particular — are a cornerstone of Chipotle's identity as a responsible food chain, which explains why the company would rather temporarily take one of its four proteins off the menu than switch to conventional sources, as it does when sustainably raised beef is in short supply.
With conventionally raised beef, Arnold says, "the treatment of the animals is not so egregious. With pigs, the differences are simply too stark and get to very real animal-welfare issues, and that is an area where we simply won’t compromise.”
While Chipotle's stock prices took an ever-so-slight dip this week, standing by its commitment to "Food with Integrity" will likely serve the chain well in the longer term, as it continues to appeal to a growing segment of consumers willing to invest in more responsible food options.
Chipotle isn’t the only food company to stand firm against suppliers that don’t abide by strict animal-welfare standards. Last month, Panera Bread reported progress on its goal to source only responsibly raised livestock and poultry, including further reduction of antibiotic usage and confinement. And in August, Nestlé partnered with NGO World Animal Protection to develop tighter animal-welfare standards for its entire supply chain. The commitment followed the release of hidden-camera video taken in December 2013 by watchdog group Mercy for Animals at a Nestlé dairy supplier in Wisconsin, which reportedly showed the brutal mistreatment of cows; in response, Nestlé said it was "outraged and deeply saddened by the mistreatment of animals shown in this video” and would no longer accept cheese made from milk from the offending farm.