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Balancing Standards, Availability in Food Supply

January 15, 2015

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you have watched headlines the last few days there has been considerable discussion about pork. Specifically Chipotle pork. With it, questions are raised to consumer demand, consumer responsibility, consumer consequences of choices, how transparent is an almost answer and, often, more questions than answers.

For those who missed it, Chipotle restaurants announced a compromised situation in the ethics of how pigs were raised in a supplier that provides pork for 1/3 of their restaurants. When marketing with social “ethics”, how does a business operate when there isn’t availability of what they want? In the case of beef, they imported. For pork, they choose to discontinue pork items in a third of the restaurants, although they wouldn’t answer the questions when I asked a few years ago.

The consumer absolutely drives demand, and for many in agriculture it’s why they take to video and blog to share the truth in how animals are raised on their farms. A big discussion the last few years has been the use of gestation crates in hog production. Supporters show quiet pigs that don’t move a great deal even when given a choice. They tell of bully sows and injuries, of sows that don’t get enough to eat due to dominant sows at the feeder. Critics paint a pitiful picture of pigs with sores that can’t turn around or walk.

The industry has been moving to a combination system that allows sows to get out if she wants or stay in if she prefers. Some show that many sows still spend the majority of their time in the comfort and protection of their space.

hamEnter Chipotle – with “ethical” sourced ingredients when available. Pigs must be allowed to move and have room outside. In modern systems, hogs are at a steady temperature and, like most of us, it’s warmer in a 70 degree hog barn than outside at zero with blowing wind! If they must be outside, that exposes them to the elements under the banner of “humane”. Please remember pigs as you hear weather reports in your area. Remember, too, that pigs don’t sweat, so in hot weather and sun can die of heat stroke.

Another factor is the statement that a (one) source was not up to the Chipotle standard, so rather than source from ‘ordinary hogs’ they chose to cut the item from the menu in 1/3 of their restaurants. In one of his books, Joel Salatin spoke of sourcing to Chipotle, and that they did not want the whole chicken or whole hog, but parts of it. This makes a difference to producers, because if I sell you a hog, and you get it processed you’re processing your hog to get bacon, sausage, ham, ground pork and so forth.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf I have the pig done and sell you ten pounds of sausage, now there’s a whole different set of regulations involved. Cook it and there’s more! There are fewer USDA processors to small producers, as has been evolving over the last 30-40 years.

Back to Mr. Salatin, who folks in comment sections say is finishing 1,000 pigs per year. In the book, he spoke of supplying three restaurants. Chipotle has over 1,700 restaurants. If one supplier is responsible for over 500 restaurants, that’s hundreds of thousands of hogs on pasture that you WILL smell if you’re near them. Unlike those in barns there’s no lagoon or filter – it’s wherever the hogs happen to be. That, also, is not the small farm ideal that is advertised.

Restaurants are still a business. They must show a profit for investors, and that happens by keeping people happy. If their favorite item isn’t on the menu, they won’t go there. With additional “ethical” requirements in motion, it seems, it won’t be long before there is similar supply issues with other ingredients.

Of course, there are many who don’t care for Chipotle or their ethical decisions, and don’t eat there. Some prefer what they make at home. Fair enough! I hope that it illustrates the power of thinking through claims, and that power of demand that can be a double edged sword. It’s important to have a voice, to buy what you want but also to be informed.

You might not care if the pork chop you ate tonight came from a pig who was inside or outside. You might not care if it was white, red or black in color. You might not care what it ate – but others do and want to alter your choices for their own reasons.

Be an informed eater! It matters.

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