Longform

Chipotle founder Steve Ells discusses the ingredients behind two decades in business

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Chipotle's tagline is "food with integrity." What does that mean to you, and why is it important?

It's not really so much a tagline as it is a philosophy. When I opened the first Chipotle, I was proud to serve food that was fresh, because we were proving that prepping and cooking fresh food could be an essential part of a fast-food experience. But I soon came to realize that fresh ingredients just weren't enough anymore. Not only did I need to serve fresh food, I needed to know how it was raised. And it all started with a visit to an industrial pig farm, a typical confined-animal feeding operation that's the sort of operation responsible for most of the pork supply in the U.S. What I saw there was a system of exploitation that made me very uncomfortable, and I knew our customers would be uncomfortable had they seen it, too. Shortly after that visit, we started purchasing all of our pork from Niman Ranch, where pigs are raised out of doors, or in deeply bedded barns, and without the use of antibiotics. Since that initial visit, Chipotle has been on a quest to find more sustainable sources for all of the food we serve. We purchase more meat raised without antibiotics than any other restaurant company, and we're the only national restaurant company with significant commitments to local and organically grown produce, not to mention the only company using dairy products made with milk from cows raised on open pastures and without the use of the synthetic hormone rBGH. More recently, we've been moving away from ingredients that are genetically modified.

Niman Ranch, which was sold to Natural Food Holdings in 2006, has since been labeled a "zombie brand" by a handful of critics. Do you feel as though Niman Ranch's products have been compromised under Natural Food Holdings' management?

I certainly wouldn't call it a "zombie brand." Niman Ranch has become more mainstream and it's grown significantly in scale, but we continue to value what they do and purchase products from them. They realized founder Bill Niman's mission, a mission we have in common, to change the way animals are raised and food is produced in this country. What's so great is that other giant food companies are now doing what Niman, and only a few others, were doing a decade ago. This makes it possible for more and more people to have access to meats raised in a better way.

Considering the immeasurable volume that Chipotle does, how are you able to source from responsible farmers and ranchers that can accommodate such high demand?

It's difficult to do. There is no switch you can throw to serve all organic, natural or local food — at least not with our size. But we've been willing to start small and build up over time. It took us about ten years to get to the point of serving all naturally raised meat, but we thought it was important to do, so we made the commitment and then built a system to enable us to do it over time. We're taking a similar approach with other ingredients, but it takes focus and discipline.

Kansas farmer and rancher Mike Callicrate, who owns Ranch Food Direct, contends that Chipotle refuses to accept livestock treated with antibiotics in cases where antibiotics are necessary to treat illness. "Under Chipotle's 'never-ever-not-to-buy' protocol, animals treated with antibiotics, whether responsibly or for treatment, or irresponsibly, for sub-therapeutic use, must be removed from its program, leaving Chipotle mostly buying meat from animals with false affidavits and/or far cheaper meat from the big industrial packers," insists Callicrate. What's your response?

Let me start by saying that we absolutely believe that sick animals should be treated with antibiotics. But, under our protocols, they'd have to be removed from our program. In the case of Callicrate, our audits found that they weren't adhering to our protocols, so we had to terminate our relationship with them, but it's nonsense to suggest that others aren't meeting those requirements. Antibiotics are a very serious issue in livestock production, and they're significantly overused. In fact, about 80 percent of all antibiotics used in this country are used in the raising of livestock, including in sub-therapeutic ways to stimulate growth and keep animals from getting sick. There's a very real concern that their continued overuse will lead to a proliferation of antibiotic-resistant "superbugs," and that could pose a very serious health threat to humans and animals. Antibiotic use has become a substitute for good animal husbandry. If you raise animals the right way, you really don't need to give them antibiotics.

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Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson