Tomatoes thrown at Chipotle miss target

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This week's Time magazine story on "America's Food Crisis and How to Fix It" cites Chipotle, Denver's homegrown success story, as one of the companies doing things right -- which made yesterday's petition delivery to Chipotle headquarters in LoDo, calling on the company to work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, go splat.

"We put a lot of energy into finding farmers who are committed to raising better food," founder Steve Ells told Time, explaining Chipotle's Food With Integrity Philosophy and its commitment to sustainable (and often more costly) ingredients that are not just better for the planet, but taste better.

"We certainly have some common ground with the CIW," explains company spokeman Chris Arnold. "We're both working to improve elements of the food supply." But while Chipotle has taken a more holistic approach, continually improving its sourcing over the last decade, the CIW focuses on just one issue: labor.

"Labor laws that govern every sector of employment do not cover agricultural workers," Arnold points out, which means that tomato pickers in Florida or lettuce harvesters in California aren't covered by the same set of laws as workers at Westword and Chipotle. That's why CIW started campaigning to have the companies that buy the produce pay more, with the differential going to the workers.

"We've been in the cross-hairs for two to three years," Arnold says of the CIW. "It's a complicated issue without a simple solution, but we're working on it."

In fact, when the twelve-week Florida tomato season rolls around again this winter, Arnold says Chipotle should have a solution to the complicated issue in place: "We fully expect we'll be buying from a grower or growers who will pass the differential price onto the workers.That's an important step. Right now, most of the deals the CIW has are blocked by the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange."

That organization accounts for 90 percent of Florida's growers. Taco Bell was the first to sign a deal with the CIW that would pay laborers more for their work, but after McDonald's signed, the Exchange shut down the mechanism for payment and threatened their members with fines if they cooperated. As a result, companies that have already made deals with the CIW are now amassing money in escrow accounts.

Chipotle has been talking with the CIW for several months now, Arnold says, and "we are confident that we have found a way around the block if we do it directly with growers."

So why is the CIW throwing tomatoes at the company now? Ironically, Chipotle's promotional partnership with Food, Inc. this summer seems to have reinvigorated the campaign against the company. Producer Robert Kenner is one of those who signed the CIW petition -- but he also points to Ells as someone who's doing things right.

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