Behind the Label: Chipotle, Food With Integrity

A closer look at Chipotle’s ode to sustainable eating.

For the past decade, Chipotle Mexican Grill has distinguished itself from fast food competitors by emphasizing Food With Integrity, a commitment to serving customers “the very best ingredients, all raised with respect for the animals, the environment, and the farmers.”

As a result, Chipotle has become that rare fast food brand that is trusted by sustainable foodies for using fresh, natural ingredients. But it’s certainly not perfect. The burrito chain has also been criticized for its approach to improving workers’ rights, as well as its unhealthily large portion sizes. 

Chipotle’s Food With Integrity commitment encompasses the use of naturally raised meat, organic produce, and dairy without added hormones, with an emphasis on local sourcing. Funny enough, though, most patrons are unaware of Food With Integrity. In a 2007 Business Week interview, founder and CEO Steve Ells estimated that only 5 percent of customers know anything about the campaign. “The rest come in because Chipotle tastes great, or they like spicy food, or they think it’s a great value, or it’s convenient, or the place looks cool.”

In fact, Chipotle only just recently started emphasizing its sustainable values in its marketing. Last year, it created a stop-motion animated short film called “Back to the Start,” which was recently broadcast as the company’s first ever national television ad during Sunday’s GRAMMY Awards. Set to a cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” by country star Willie Nelson, the animated short depicts the growth of a factory farm, before its owner has a change of heart and decides to operate more sustainably.

Though his green marketing budget is slim, Ells himself is an outspoken advocate for sustainable farming and ethical animal treatment, and he frequently expresses his hope that Chipotle’s efforts will spur an industry-wide revolution:

Finding sustainable sources for food in each region can be difficult. But we are committed to serving food made with the finest ingredients available. The more consumers understand the benefits of eating food from more sustainable sources, the more they’re going to expect it from everyone.

It’s evident that Ells and his Chipotle empire are mighty good at talking the talk. But do they walk the walk? Here, a look at the good, the bad, and the questionable aspects of one of the country’s quickest growing fast food restaurants.

The Good

Today, Chipotle serves more “naturally raised” meat – defined as open-range, antibiotic free, and with a vegetarian diet – than any other restaurant chain. The company sources 100 percent of its pork and “much”  (approximately 80 to 85 percent) of its beef and chicken from suppliers who adhere to these values, including the highly respected Niman Ranch in California.

In addition, 40 percent of Chipotle’s beans are organic, with a small percentage grown using conservation tilling methods. And in 2011, the company announced that it would use more than 10 million pounds of local produce from farms within 350 miles of the restaurants where the produce will ultimately be served, including bell peppers, jalapenos, oregano, red onions, and romaine lettuce.

To prove Chipotle’s freshness point, none of their restaurants have freezers, microwave ovens, or can openers. They do, however, have open kitchens for even further transparency.

The Bad

Since 2006, Chipotle has faced protest from sustainability advocates because of its refusal to join other fast food chains in a coalition to improve wages and conditions for Florida tomato pickers. In 2009, 33 individuals and groups, including Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser and Food Inc. director Robert Kenner, signed a public letter to Ells, calling on him to support the efforts of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a grassroots farm worker organization, by signing onto the Campaign for Fair Food. The letter challenged:

Your company has shown admirable leadership in working with – and incubating – meat suppliers willing to meet your higher standards. But your failure to do that same hard work in the Florida tomato industry – together with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) – threatens to render your announcement an empty gesture aimed more at public relations damage control than an effort to make real change.

Ells responded that the CIW “doesn’t see the bigger picture” of fundamentally changing the fast food world, though CIW has made landmark progress in improving workers rights, even earning a Hero Acting to End Modern-Day Slavery Award from the U.S. State Department in 2010.

Ultimately, Chipotle entered into an agreement with East Coast Farms, Florida’s largest tomato producer, where it agreed to pay an additional penny per pound of tomatoes picked. Despite repeated pleas from big names in the sustainability community, it still hasn’t signed onto the Campaign for Fair Food to address other workers rights.

The Questionable

Though the ingredients are fresh and more-or-less well-cultivated, the Chipotle Burrito has become an object of controversy because of its nutritional content, landing on lists of both the best foods and the worst foods.

On Chipotle’s website, nutritional facts are broken down by ingredient – helpful for build-your-own-burrito aficionados. However, this breakdown disguises the fact that a basic pork burrito with rice, vegetables, cheese, guacamole, and salsa can top out at more than 1,300 calories – more than twice that of a McDonald’s Big Mac. The burrito also contains 31 grams of fat, 105 milligrams of cholesterol, 102 grams of carbohydrates, and a whopping 2600 mg of sodium – more than your average daily allowance.

Experts remind us that even fresh, organic food must be consumed in moderation. Though Chipotle’s past efforts have made it a pioneer in sustainable fast food, the next step might be to adjust portion sizes to make them more in line with a healthy balanced diet.


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One thought on “Behind the Label: Chipotle, Food With Integrity

  1. Oh get off your high horse “portion size too large” and stop scolding Chipolte for selling fattening food. The size of the burrito and the bowl are completely up to the CUSTOMER. As the customer goes through the line when placing their order, they tell the counter staff what ingredients to put inside the CUSTOMIZED burrito or bowl.

    I’ve seen some customers pile on every single topping they have and it must be 1,200 calories bowl. But you can’t stop people from pigging out. Chipolte leaves it completely up to the customer to customize their order.

    I am grateful to Chipolte for including nutritional info with clear cut transparency. When I realized the tortilla that goes in the burrito was almost 300 calories, I realized I needed to stick to ordering the bowls. I don’t eat white flour anyway, so that made it an easy decision for me.

    I get to pick and choose what goes into my meal, not Chipolte in some insidious scheme to turn us all into lard bucket tubbies!

    Here is my advice for calorie conscious folks – order the vegetarian bowl without rice – make the foundation of the bowl lots of lettuce and cilantro. Black beans and pinto beans (loads of fiber and it makes you feel full) generous with the salsa (i like the mild version). I always ask for extra tomatoes, pile it on ‘cos veggies have few calories. The vegetarian bowl comes with avocado, but the portion size of guacamole serving is TINY, maybe 1 1/2 tablespoons – so I order a double and pay an extra $1.90 for it- avocado is high in fat, but it is the heart healty Omega 3 fat and it has fiber, plus in this spartan vegetarian bowl you need an extra bit of avocado to give it “oomph”. I don’t load it down with lots of cheese and sour cream to keep it lower in calories. Make it a vegan bowl and it is low cal – if you are hungering for some lower calorie animal protein – the serving size of sour cream isn’t much – it’s only a tablespoon size AND they water down the sour cream so much, I doubt there are more than 100 calories in a serving – it adds some zip to the vegan version of the bowl.

    Skip ordering a beverage – I always ask for an empty cup which I fill up with their sliced lemon wedges and ice water. Not only is my beverage FREE, it has about 2 calories just from the lemon squeezed. I think (?) the ice water in the beverage dispenser machine is probably purified water? I live in Sacramento and our municipal is fluoridated, chlorinated and tastes just AWFUL, whereas the water at Chipolte is lovely, like spring water.

    The only bone I have to pick with Chipolte is their brown rice is coated in GMO canola oil – their chips are fried in GMO canola oil – but it is MY CHOICE not to eat that stuff. I never eat the veggie relish because it has corn kernels in it and I am pretty sure it is probably GMO corn, since it is conventional and not organic corn – plus all the stuff in that corn/veggie relish you can get form eating the salsa and tomatoe options. I also wish they would offer a whole grain tortilla for the burrito wrap. If I’m going to consume almost 300 calories to wrap a burrito, it least it should be whole grain and have some fiber to justify all that carb! Here is the problem….70% of Americans LOVE their junk food and would revolt if they were forced to eat a whole grain tortilla in the burrito – but just if there was a whole grain option so I had something to eat other than that white flour empty calorie burrito wrap.

    The other problem I have with Chipolte is their limited menu – just a bowl or a burrito. BORING!

    I’ve eaten there maybe nine zillion times in the last 4 years, I am getting burned out on lack of menu options. The new menu item sofritos isn’t that good – WAY TOO SPICY, I asked for a sample – it was 1/4 of a teaspoon size sample and it blew the tounge out of my mouth. I had to drink 2 glasses of ice water with lemon to cool off from the over spiced sofritos. At least they are trying to come up with something new, but tofu is just so darn tasteless, I think they thought sofritos has to be drenched in tons of hot, hot spices?


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