Chipotle’s triumphant solution to fixing its ongoing carnitas shortage once and for all has inadvertently also made the burrito chain the enemy of the American pork industry. Lunchgoers were probably happy to see Monday’s announcement, but domestic pig farmers aren’t as enthralled.
Some backstory: The carnitas shortage began when Chipotle discovered a “supplier violation” during a routine audit related to animal housing. The chain said it would drop the supplier and that it wouldn’t compromise its values by switching to conventionally raised pork (i.e., with antibiotics and hormones) to meet demand. Farmers therefore assumed any replacement supplier would meet Chipotle’s “responsibly raised” standards, yet it raised a few eyebrows when Chipotle announced that it would be buying its pork from British meat provider Karro, which publicly says that it uses antibiotics “when necessary” — a detail that Chipotle applauded in its announcement, but which has struck some industry advocates as hypocritical.
The president of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association, for instance, wrote a letter to Chipotle claiming that Karro’s farming practices are the same as ones used by America’s pig farmers:
All these years you’ve been saying that your pork is better because it comes from farms that never fed antibiotics, but now that you have a supplier that can use antibiotics, you’re admitting there will be no residue and it’s the same as pork from animals never fed antibiotics. It would appear that you have changed your message to fit your situation.
Another industry advocate asked, “How does it fit sustainability goals when shipping food across the ocean because you claim ethically raised meats aren’t raised here at home?”
At least one other point of concern is the American pork supplier that Chipotle dropped, which it’s never named publicly. Jarrod Sutton, an executive for the National Pork Board, claims to know the supplier and says that Chipotle’s claims aren’t in line with what really happened: According to Sutton, Chipotle’s point of contention was that the farmer wouldn’t give his pigs outdoor access in January, despite snow and low temperatures. Chipotle said he wasn’t “complying with its animal-welfare standards,” but Sutton says the farmer, with 30-plus years’ experience, didn’t want to endanger his animals in the winter.
Of course, the complaints don’t specifically accuse Karro or Chipotle of doing anything wrong, and the industry advocates speaking out against Chipotle’s supplier choice stand to benefit, even indirectly, if the chain keeps its pork business Stateside. Nevertheless, it’s probably safe to say these people are among those who are a little less enamored of Chipotle than they used to be.
Update: A representative for Chipotle sends along the following statement:
First, we suspended a supplier in January because they were not meeting all of the animal welfare standards set forth in our protocol (it had nothing to do with use of antibiotics or hormones). We said at the time that it was an animal welfare issue and that the issues had to do with housing (not antibiotics or hormones). We also said at the time that we were not willing to compromise our animal welfare standards and that is why we suspending this supplier.
Next, in bringing Karro into our system to help fill the gap that was created by suspending that supplier, we were looking first for suppliers that meet all facets of our protocol — including animal welfare and antibiotic use. We were not able to find additional domestic suppliers that met both. In Karro, we found a supplier that met (or exceeded) all facets of our animal welfare protocol, and that adhered to a very high standard with regard to antibiotic use. While there may well be domestic pork producers who meet the same antibiotic protocol as Karro, that does not mean that the meet the same standard for animal welfare. You can see a comparison of conventional (domestic) pork protocols, our Responsibly Raised standard, and what Karro is doing here. If you look at that, what you’ll see is that Karro is much closer to our standard than conventional domestic pork. You have to look at the standard as a whole, not just part of it.
Finally, terms of the Pork Board’s contention that they know the supplier that we suspended, the presentation of that is utter nonsense. The supplier was not a single farm, but rather a network of farms, and the problems we found in our audit showed a systemic failure to meet protocols, not issues at a single farm. Issues at a single farm could be dealt with relatively quickly and easily, or that individual farm could be removed from our protocol. The supplier we suspended accounted for nearly a third of our pork, and that was not coming from one individual’s farm, but rather a large network of farms. That whole discussion from the Pork Board is entirely baseless.