Last winter, pork lovers noticed something missing in their burritos, tacos and bowls at Chipotle: the carnitas. The burrito chain that got its start in Denver had decided to stop serving pork rather than risk selling meat that didn't meet the company's animal-welfare standards. According to Chipotle's website, the carnitas shortage happened when "our animal welfare auditors found one of our suppliers to be violating some of Chipotle’s core animal welfare standards, and we suspended all purchases from this supplier."
This past January, Niman Ranch — already one of the burrito chain's top pork suppliers — released some of its reserve supply to help fill the carnitas void, but it was only a temporary solution, since Niman couldn't expand its farming and production quickly enough to meet demand. By spring, many of Chipotle's restaurants were again without pork. But in July, a new deal was struck with British hog company Karro Foods to begin providing meat to Chipotle's U.S. restaurants.
Now, according to the company, carnitas are once again available in almost every market. You can find carnitas in about 90 percent of the Chipotle locations nationwide, and the company plans to have pork back in all stores by November. Currently, only North Carolina, South Carolina, Cleveland and Atlanta are still stuck in a carnitas drought.
“The decision to stop selling carnitas in many of our restaurants was an easy one,” said Steve Ells, founder, chairman and co-CEO at Chipotle, in a recent press release. “We simply will not compromise our high standards for animal welfare."
According to the company, the most important standards for its pork suppliers are that animals have access to the outdoors or to deeply bedded barns, are raised without the use of antibiotics, and are not put in gestation crates. Karro meets all of these standards — with one distinction. Chipotle notes that "Karro follows European standards that allow for antibiotics to be administered when necessary to keep an animal healthy." The main objection to antibiotic use in the conventional livestock industry is that the drugs are used for growth promotion and are administered even to healthy animals in continuing doses, but Karro only gives antibiotics to sick pigs and then allows for a withdrawal period before slaughter to ensure that no antibiotic residue is detectable in the meat.
In a separate development, Niman Ranch was purchased by chicken giant Perdue at the beginning of September, which has some activists worried that animal-welfare standards at Niman Ranch could slip. But since Chipotle is already one of the company's biggest customers, the purchase could mean more Niman Ranch pork showing up in Chipotle burritos in the future.