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Meat Minus the Drug Cocktail: Chipotle’s Push for Better Pork

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An Argument for Antibiotic Resistance

Chipotle’s Locally Grown Initiative

Pork. Photo Courtesy of Care2 Healthy LivingThe story about the food industry can start to sound the same after a while: under pressure from consumers, a chain with disproportionate market share and purchasing power makes a change that sends quick ripples through the industry. This can be both encouraging and scary. Encouraging that we can create such change with our food dollars alone, and scary that the future of our food rests so heavily in the hands of a few large players. It’s ultimately in our hands, yes, but we are quite dependent on some massive companies as a conduit. I view them as having both great power and great responsibility, since they have so much influence on the outcome.

From the beginning, the Chipotle Restaurant chain, which specializes in build-your-own burritos and tacos, built a brand image as a rare purveyor of fast food that was also whole food and local food. Everything is fresh, nothing deep-fried or over-salted, and though the choices can be highly caloric (especially when you add sour cream, guacamole, cheese, and meat to your dish), most of the building blocks are either one ingredient or just a small handful – for example, salsa, corn relish, braised meat, or rice and beans. Almost half of the beans are organic and much of the produce is sourced locally through Chipotle’s Locally Grown Initiative. The chain tries hard, however, to seek out quality and consistency, which can be difficult when sourcing from many small area farms.

“Chipotle buys more naturally raised meat than any restaurant business in America, which has a ripple effect among other chains as well as among suppliers,” wrote Lee Klein for the Miami New Times. “For instance, Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, credited Chipotle for its decision to eliminate sow stalls.” All of Chipotle’s pork is raised outdoors, on a vegetarian diet, without antibiotics.

The food service world caught on to antibiotic-free meat when Chipotle and other mainstream chains began putting it on the menu. And Chipotle caught on to it when, in 1999, founder Steve Ells stumbled upon an article by Iowa pig farmer Paul Willis entitled “The Lost Taste of Pork.” Willis, who had teamed up with Niman Ranch in Iowa, raised pasture-fed pork free of antibiotics, a radical departure from most of his major counterparts in the industry, in which feedlot, drug-pumped pork was the standard.

Chipotle Mexican GrillElls took a chance and ordered some of Willis’s pork, and the rest is history. Despite the ensuing $1 increase in the price of a Chipotle carnitas burrito, sales doubled. Ells was not certain whether it was the way the naturally-raised pork was marketed or simply the taste, but it was probably some combination. To many customers, it was likely a mix of quality and taste as well as a growing consciousness about food, the environment, and public health that ultimately fueled the sales. Ells gradually began partnering with more sustainable producers like Willis.

When Willis began working for Niman Ranch, which is like a grower’s cooperative, he was the only pork farmer. Today there are hundreds. “I’m proud that we’ve created a market for people who want to raise livestock this way,” he told NPR.

Despite many beliefs to the contrary, shoppers showed that when they care enough about a healthy product that is not harmful to their health or the environment, they are willing to spend extra. This is certainly reflected in the growing organic foods industry, but it also reaches the consumers on a tight budget who may not see organic food as directly beneficial and worth the extra bucks, but who may still see the common-sense value of antibiotic-free meat.

We have been mixing antibiotics into livestock feed since 1946, when studies showed that they helped animals grow faster and put on weight more efficiently. Raising animals on a corn diet in close confinement and poor sanitation also increases their risk of infection and need for consistent preventative medication.

Today, at least 18,000 Americans die every year from drug-resistant infections, many of which can be attributed to overuse in livestock.

This issue has reached far beyond a hardcore health-conscious niche. It’s often a simple matter of awareness. Once people learn about the problem of antibiotic resistance and its direct cause in overuse in livestock, they care. And they’ve gotten the FDA’s attention, leading to FDA voluntary guidelines recommending “phasing out the agricultural production use of medically important drugs.” More large retailers are also starting to increase their stocks of antibiotic-free meat, including Walmart. When Walmart buys in, you know it’s a mainstream concern.

“Supermoms against Superbugs” is a group organized by the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming and the American Academy of Pediatrics, and continues to put pressure on government agencies to restrict overuse of drugs needed to treat human disease. Many of the mothers in the group found their activist impulse when a child or family member got sick or died from antibiotic-resistant pathogens, and the group’s lobbying campaigns hold agricultural overuse of important medical drugs directly accountable. The resistant DNA stays and multiplies in a microbe population where survival of the fittest means outsmarting human drugs. Bacteria and viruses with the mutated DNA can often survive in soil and water for years.

Food Safety News wrote of a recent meeting of the Supermoms, “Many in the room touted free market demand for antibiotic-free meats (the luncheon served Chipotle burritos) and the pending Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) as key for reversing the trend.”

Once antibiotic resistance becomes an issue about families and kids, it easily touches everyone, and it stands a good chance of more successful lobbying. We’re failing at preserving the effectiveness of antibiotics, and more people are waking up to that fact. More and more people see that this touches them directly, and their spending starts to reflect this. Like the Supermoms, many find ways to speak out, as individuals, lobbying groups, and corporations like Chipotle, blending forces with organic purists and making it an issue without boundaries.

Genevieve Slocum is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.


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