The Mexican restaurant chain Chipotle has a new cartoon video out to coincide with the launch of an iPhone game. The video, titled “Scarecrow,” paints modern food production as a dark place run by evil beings. This isn’t new for Chipotle, which last year ran an ad called “Back to the Start.” But it’s even more eye-rolling than the last one.
The whole premise is that “big” and “modern” equals bad when it comes to food. Yet Chipotle itself is no small business. It has over 1,000 restaurants and revenue of $3 billion (and was formerly owned by McDonald’s). We imagine its distribution chain uses trucks, planes, and other “modern” and “industrial” (bad words to Chipotle) means of transportation.
Chipotle bashes “big,” yet the gazillions of tortillas that the company goes through aren’t exactly made in some Mexican grandmother’s kitchen. In the Pacific Northwest, Chipotle sources chips and tortillas from Don Pancho Authentic Mexican Foods, Inc., a company that brags on its website that it has “grown from a small company into a state-of-the-art processing plant.” In fact, judging from the pictures, Chipotle is sourcing food from a veritable “industrial tortilla factory.”
Don’t get us wrong—we don’t have a problem with Don Pancho’s tortilla production. It’s probably quite efficient and clean. We just think that Chipotle’s over-the-top marketing strategy leaves it open to a lot of criticism. (Chipotle has also come under fire from Big Labor for its alleged treatment of workers.)
Back to the meat of the matter (forgive the pun). Chipotle takes issue with modern livestock farms and the use of antibiotics, hormones and animal housing. Relying on a cartoon underscores, however, that this is a marketing strategy, not a means to present a realistic picture of agriculture. Take the use of antibiotics. Chipotle says it won’t buy from farms that use antibiotics to raise chicken. So what’s a farmer to do if one of his birds gets sick? Perhaps it’s an apt time to point out that Chipotle notes in an annual report, “Herd losses can also be greater when animals are not treated with antibiotics and hormones.”
In fact, while Chipotle brands its fare “food with integrity,” that label seems to come with some fine print. Chipotle on the one hand bashes farms that use antibiotics, yet, on the other, is all too happy to sell meat that was raised with the use of antibiotics if there’s a supply shortage.
There’s a larger agriculture narrative developed by city-dwellers over the years who have ideological problems with modern food technology and production. Chipotle is taking advantage of it as much as possible to make money. It’s important to remember that, as one in the ag community puts it, marketing is not reality. There are plenty of videos—not cartoons—that show modern farms in a straightforward manner (that is, without the horror-movie soundtrack and editing of an animal-rights video).
Apply Chipotle’s economic logic to other industries. Should we go back to the horse and buggy because there’s car exhaust? Of course not. Progress is progress, but it’s never perfect. Agriculture and food production can improve upon its gains, but that doesn’t mean it has to go “back to the start.”
There’s plenty of good food at Chipotle. But the company propaganda leaves a bad aftertaste. For farmers who want to spread the truth about agriculture and clear the air of misinformation, we suggest posting on Chipotle’s Facebook wall. Maybe you’ll break through, eventually.