This week Chipotle announced it pulled Carnitas (“little meats” in Spanish) from the menu at a third of its restaurants because one of its suppliers was not treating its pigs in a humane way.
It was a decision Chipotle had been ready to make since it went sustainable over a decade ago.
Back then, Chipotle founder Steve Ells noticed pork was actually not selling very well, according to NPR. Then he came upon an article in The Art of Eating journal on Iowa farmer Paul Willis’ naturally raised pigs.
It was titled “The Lost Taste of Pork,” written by food writer Edward Behr after he had the “best pork [he] had ever eaten” at Chez Panisse in California.
So Ells went up to Niman Ranch, a farming cooperative Willis had teamed up with.
“I remember distinctly a bunch of young piglets running by him in the field,” Willis told Bloomberg Businessweek. “I felt like he was really moved by the experience.”
Chipotle started ordering pork from Niman, and sales of carnitas doubled—despite having to raise the price by a dollar.
By 2001, all of Chipotle’s pork was sourced sustainably. Chipotle had started off ordering a few hundred pounds a week, but demand continued to grow.
Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch, recalled conversations with Ells in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek. It got to the point where Niman was afraid they could not meet demand, and Ells’ response was they would take pork off the menu if it came to that.
By 2012, Chipotle was adding about three restaurants a week. It currently has about 1,700 locations.
Chipotle grew, as the consumer demand for antibiotic-free meat.
Suppliers like Perdue and Tyson were making the change even before the Food and Drug Administration put out a voluntary call to meat companies to phase out use of antibiotics.
As of 2012, a Consumer Reports survey found 72 people were extremely or very concerned about antibiotics in animal feed. Only an estimated 2 percent of meat came from animals raised without antibiotics.
This was a year after the Center for Disease Control and Prevention wrote that 2 million Americans develop bacterial infections resistant to antibiotics each year, causing 23,000 deaths. It found that half of antibiotic use in humans and animals was unnecessary, inappropriate, and unsafe.
And the “fast-casual” chain was distinguishing itself by being fresh, cruelty-free, and sustainable even in design. The core of its mission is “food with integrity.”
Pigs are generally raised on factory farms that keep the pigs in small pens that allow for very little movement, and they are given antibiotics to keep them from getting sick and to enhance growth.
American pork producers use over 10 million pounds of antibiotics on pigs a year, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, which is three times more than what all of humans use.
Thus, Chipotle chooses to work with farmers who raise pigs outside or in deeply bedded pens, fed vegetarian diets, and aren’t given any antibiotics.
When Chipotle faced a beef shortage in 2013, they were forced to switch to conventional beef. There was just not enough sustainably-raised beef to meet the company’s demand.
In a statement, Chipotle stated could not do the same with pork, because the manner in which these pigs are raised compromises animal welfare in a way conventionally raised beef does not.
“Given these stark differences, serving pork from conventionally raised pigs is not an option to us,” spokesperson Chris Arnold told Washington Post. “We would rather not serve pork at all, than serve pork from animals that are raised in this way.”
The carnitas actually only make up 6-7 percent of the company’s sales. The pork was pulled at about 600 restaurants after a routine audit found that one of the suppliers violated Chipotle’s animal welfare policy.
Niman Ranch is now increasing the supply of pork by 15-20 percent to Chipotle and will continue to do so going forward.
According to Business Insider, they had extra reserves set aside for holidays and special events, but it is still not enough to cover all of what Chipotle needs.
Niman currently oversees 700 farmers who raise pigs in a natural way, and the demand would call for doubling the amount of farmers Niman works with, Executive Vice President Jeff Tripician told Business Insider.