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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Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.