Saturday, January 9, 2016

Thanks Chipotle

I am really sincere when I say Thank You to the Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant chain.  They accomplished more in the last few months by demonstrating that their products are not superior, safer or healthier than farmers did in two years of blogs and interviews.  As a proud, conscientious farmer, I also want to say thanks to Chipotle for demonstrating to American consumers that their marketing claims and attacks on traditional farm practices are wrong.  Chipotle branded itself using all the buzzwords to bring in health minded consumers.  They were throwing “organic”, “natural”, “GMO Free”, “Antibiotic Free”, “Locally Grown”, and about any other catch phrase around  to differentiate itself from every other fast-food franchise.

Chipotle took it one step further by attacking the modern, science based practices we use to raise our beef and pork in a series of internet videos.  They attacked the use of climate controlled hog and cattle barns like my family uses to improve animal health and protect livestock from extreme weather.   The use of antibiotics even those veterinarians prescribe to treat illnesses were demonized, and they attacked the use of FDA approved growth supplements to improve meat quality.  The premise of the stories was that the modern, research based, farming practices made food less safe, not as nutritious, and maybe harmful.  It’s been impossible to find objective, science or health research to back up those claims.

Then Chipotle stumbled with a series of food borne illness outbreaks, something that shouldn’t happen based on the chains claims.  It started with one store, then a few more in the same area.  Two outbreaks involved norovirus, three more were caused by E. coli and the other was caused by Salmonella, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Then it spread to 500 people in ten states.  The story created to market the franchise as healthier and safer was unraveled.  The Attorney General in California with the FDA has subpoenaed the records regarding the outbreak in Simi Valley, California. Further calling the chains conduct into question. 

Politics, people, or food the popular marketing strategy is to divide and conquer rather than the actual merits. In this case, a restaurant chain could have had millions of farmers and food producers rallying around them instead of sitting on the sideline, maybe even enjoying watching them fall.  We know that food borne illnesses from restaurants or our homes happen, typically from mishandling food during preparation.  This doesn’t make organic or natural any more or less safe than it was before, but it shows the common truth regarding all our food.    Fresh, locally grown, organic or conventional food must follow the FDA guidelines for safe handling and preparation, and we know from the stats and facts that the US food supply is the safest in the world.  However, they chose to create a divide a go it alone. Thanks for the lesson.  Animal and human health as well as food safety are common bonds the should unite all food raisers and marketers.

I believe in food choices.  I think consumers should have the opportunity to buy the food they wish.  I think that farmers have the right to grow the crops they choose and specialty foods sold for premium, niche markets may get a higher price for their efforts.  But restaurants like Chipotle should not use baseless attacks as a marketing campaign to gain acceptance.  There are plenty of consumers to create a market for all food options; they should be able to choose by facts not crafted stories. 

If you’re looking for “Food with Integrity” as Chipotle claims, I’d trust the 2 million or so American family farmers who have been skeptical if not critical all along and eat somewhere else.

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