Chipotle Says Farmers and Ranchers Lack Integrity | My Chat Part 3

In the first two parts of this series about my chat with Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) following their continued campaign on Food With Integrity (FWI), I’ve been discussing a few of the issues many farmers and ranchers have with this fear-based marketing strategy. CMG had a FWI marketing manager contact me and so far we’ve spent close to three hours on the phone tossing back and forth a few questions. We’ll be referring to him as Chip throughout the series.

I’m continuing this series from my chat with Chipotle, not because I’m afraid of niche markets, healthy food, and helping local farmers. Rather, I have a strong disrespect for the use of fear marketing, fueling misinformation, and a lack of respect for the work American farmers and ranchers are doing today. Be sure to skip back and read Part 1 and Part 2 of the series.

As our conversations have carried on, Chip continues to be deny understanding the fact that so many farmers and ranchers have been offended and angered by the FWI campaigns, despite CMG emphasizing that they’re not pointing fingers at individual farmers and ranchers, but rather, as they perceive it, the systemic problems of a corporately dominated food production and supply chain (ignoring the fact that Chipotle is a company with revenue over $3.2 billion and a stock price over $500). CMG believes that the system is fundamentally broken and as the recent book, Meat Racket, describes, the system is not looking out for the welfare of farmers, ranchers, the environment, or the animals involved.

As described earlier, Chip works from an office in NYC, has a daily commute to and from his apartment, and has limited exposure to farms and ranches, most of which consist of producers who align with CMG’s ideals for a better method of food production. Chip does not admit to understanding why farmers and ranchers have become so upset with Chipotle’s FWI campaign and approach to the issues when they see it as having an issue with the organizations leading the food supply, and not the individual farmers themselves.

As a person who grew up on a ranch and has been involved with farms and ranches of many sizes and production methods for my entire life, I see this from a different perspective. These organizations that are being targeted by the FWI campaigns also involve intimate relationships with individual farmers and ranchers. It is farmers and ranchers who make up the voting membership, boards of directors, and policy makers at the root of many of these organizations.

Unlike many urban dwellers, like Chip, who have a separation between home and work with daily commutes, most of America’s farmers and ranchers do not have the luxury of separation. They walk out the door each morning and are already at their place of work. There’s not much separation between home and work life when your spouse and kids, often multiple generations of family, are involved in your work. These farms and ranches are also the homes for these families making for an intricate and intimate relationship with the production system they are involved in. Therefore, if you attack the production system they are involved in or the organizations with which these individuals are part of, you’re going to strike emotional chords much more readily than in a lifestyle where there is a greater separation between home and work life. Chip admitted, that’s something he had not thought of before.

Does raising cattle on pastures like this one in Montana not equate to Integrity? There are plenty of ranchers raising cattle in a manner that matches Chipotle's definitions for "Food With Integrity". Why do they have to move overseas to purchase their beef?
Does raising cattle on pastures like this one in Montana not equate to Integrity?
There are plenty of ranchers raising cattle in a manner that matches Chipotle’s definitions for “Food With Integrity”. Why do they have to move overseas to purchase their beef?

This disconnect between Chipotle and those producing their food wasn’t helped any by CMG’s recent announcement that they’ll begin sourcing beef for their restaurants from Australian markets, because they can’t find enough here in the U.S. Is Chipotle telling us that they believe American beef producers aren’t producing beef in a manner that matches their standards for INTEGRITY? I kept this sentiment from Chipotle in mind while spending the last two weeks visiting ranches across the state of Montana. These ranches are raising cattle with integrity, doing the best for their families, the land, and the livestock in their care, and doing so sustainably, with many families on  the land for more than 100 years. I’m more convinced than ever that Chipotle doesn’t want to work with producers and simply wants the best return on their dollar for selling burritos with a side of buzzwords. Because shipping beef across the Pacific Ocean is much more sustainable, right?

On the other hand, Chip’s perspective raises an important question. Is it farmers and ranchers who are disconnected from most American consumers, rather than the messages often expressed through advocacy efforts like my own. Instead of the 98% being disconnected, is it the 2% that simply needs to catch up with the trends and desires of the rest of the country? Not saying it’s true, but definitely good food for thought.

To this sentiment, I asked Chip what a person in my position can do to help the conversation. His suggestion was that I seek the answers to why so much of rural America is divided from the rest of the population. What is the root of this disconnect and why do so many farmers and ranchers feel vilified by CMG’s approach to marketing their FWI campaigns? He also suggests that I seek out the history as to how we arrived at a time that our food production system is largely under the influence of a few major companies with such control and buying power.

These are definitely questions worth considering and something I have an understanding about, but I would ask that Chip and CMG openly consider the questions coming from those farmers and ranchers they’re offending as well. Dialogue is a two-way street and if Chipotle wants to spark these conversations, they’re going to have to give a little and respond to the questions received, rather than the canned denial statements they continue to give on social media outlets.

Over the past few months, I’ve worked to gather questions from several influential farmers and ranchers involved in the food conversations across the country and sent them to Chip for consideration. In the next part of the series, I’ll share some observations to his responses (or lack thereof) to these questions about Chipotle’s Food With Integrity marketing campaigns.

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