Chipotle Mexican Grill Takes Humane Standards to the Mass Marketplace

By Diane Halverson

At last, a restaurant chain not only lives up to its pledge to let pigs be pigs down on the farm, but advertises that commitment. Chipotle, with 250 quick service restaurants in 10 states, publicly promotes its choice of Niman Ranch, the marketing company that embraces AWI's humane husbandry standards for pigs, as its sole supplier of pork for its gourmet tacos and burritos.

Chipotle's CEO and founder, Steve Ells, explains: "Carrying Niman Ranch pork, derived from pigs raised according to Animal Welfare Institute standards, has validated that our ingredients have integrity. And people are willing to pay a little more for food that doesn't exploit."

Chipotle posters hail the husbandry methods that once characterized pig raising in rural America but have been almost entirely replaced by barbaric systems that inflict relentless suffering on animals. One Chipotle restaurant poster tells customers: "...They've bucked the system of corporately owned hog operations and returned to the land. Literally. Niman Ranch farmers raise their pigs outdoors in open pastures. Pigs have room to roam, root and socialize."

Ells visited Niman Ranch farmers in Iowa, observing that "all the farmers cared about their animals. Certainly they knew they were raising them to feed people but there was none of the factory farming mentality where animals are 'product,' not living creatures. There's no excuse in the world to treat animals in such a brutal way. Look at all the repercussions from factory farms. It's an exploitation that's senseless.

"The factory owners' only advantage is their ability to bring down the price and have further control on the 'commodity' market. So much of the quick service restaurant business is about price-lowering the price to 99 cents and increasing the amount of food served. In that environment it's impossible to have better quality foods. That approach fosters factory farming. I feel lucky we are in a place where we can make things happen and that our customers enjoy the Chipotle experience."

After all, says Ells, "dining is about the senses. If you take an emotional approach, you're better off. Some people buy Niman for the taste or because the pigs are raised without antibiotics or to support independent family farmers or because they deplore what factory hog farming does to animals. What I care about is that people are excited about some part of it and they are supporting the overall cause of food with integrity."

Traditionally, Niman products have been carried by four-star restaurants and natural foods grocers. Chipotle allows them to reach a larger audience. Bill Niman, co-founder of Niman Ranch, explains: "One of our goals at Niman Ranch is to provide high-quality meat products from the most sustainable, animal-friendly protocols, adhered to by family farmers and available to the most people. Chipotle is one strong example of making this dream a reality. You don't have to go to a four-star restaurant to eat food produced with the highest integrity. Chipotle demonstrates that when there is a desire to make a difference, it is possible. With every carnitas purchase, Chipotle customers are having a positive impact on the landscape of rural America and supporting family farmers who raise hogs humanely, according to the Animal Welfare Institute's high standards."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that nearly 70% of sows in the U.S. live in coffin-sized crates for their entire adult lives. An untold number of boars suffer the misery of crating, too. The long-term commitment of restaurants, meat purveyors and consumers to purchase products derived from animals raised under AWI's Humane Husbandry Program will help relieve animals of the brutal burden of a factory farm existence. We urge more of them to, as the Chipotle ad says, "try a little tenderness."

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