A couple of weeks ago, national fast-casual chain Chipotle Mexican Grill garnered glowing attention from the press and conscious consumers when it announced it was removing carnitas from the menus of several hundred locations. The announcement came after the restaurant chain discovered that one of its suppliers failed to live up to Chipotle's standards for "responsibly raised" meat products.
Immediately, consumers and food bloggers lavished praise upon Chipotle for its "high moral standing" on the issue of how the food we consume is produced. Ultimately, though, the praise being heaped on Chipotle is simply a lot of hogwash.
Let's face it, the fact is that as long as Chipotle and other restaurants are raising and slaughtering millions of animals a year and generating billions of dollars in revenue off it, any claims to a higher moral standard are a bit suspect.
Make no mistake, I'm an omnivore, and although I've tried from time to time to limit my intake of animal products, it never seems to work out. And yes, I realize that the production of meat for human consumption is a leading factor in global climate change.
Given this fact in particular, you might think that more people would make the guilt-ridden decision to choose better eating choices in order to "save the planet," but that's not the way it generally works out.
Sorry, I don't have a particularly strong guilt reaction in my brain. But I do have a very strong reaction to corporations who use other people's guilt against them as leverage in a marketing campaign.
After all, isn't that the point behind restaurants like Chipotle making a lot of noise about how they are different from other places? Isn't it the reason a store like Whole Foods places signs in their meat section advertising how their cows, chickens, and pigs are loved and cared for and allowed to roam free (without the necessary parenthetical addition of the obvious fact that all that love and freedom ends the moment the animals' throats are slit)? It's marketing by any other name, and it still smells like garbage.
Part of the reason for Chipotle's rise in the world of fast food comes from its long-standing commitment to such pleasant-sounding platitudes as "food with integrity." To their credit, the company's been doing this as well as it can inside the confines of America's for-profit food model. Do they deserve some credit for this? Sure. But by the same token, do we give credit to the least violent murderer of the year? Or the oil company who polluted the least? If the best we can do is give credit to companies for screwing up less than everyone else, are we really saying we're getting anywhere toward "sustainable" anything?
If the patrons of Chipotle were truly interested in higher moral ground, would they not seek out non-chain restaurants, specifically ones that serve meat produced near enough to home that you could go visit the farm (check your Episode 1 of Portlandia jokes here, please). And would not those restaurants function more as worker co-ops, with no bosses and no managers and no corporate structure directing money to a headquarters far away from the workers and consumers? Yes, they might. But that's not the society we live in. We live in a society where the "cleanest" capitalists come off like glorious fighters in our brave new world.
If you're really concerned about animal welfare, and if you're one of the people who feel that animals deserve legal rights, then choosing a restaurant that treats animals humanely until they are slaughtered is not a win-win for you. If you're a vegan or vegetarian, then none of this really even applies to you, but feel free to buy from whatever for-profit food venture caters to/exploits your needs and makes you feel secure in your guilt-free lifestyle.
In their one shared moment of sociopolitical synchronicity, liberals and certain elements of the "libertarian" movement might agree that individual choices on certain acts — such as whether or not one consumes meat, and if so, is it meat from a "friendly" source — are of great importance. However, that viewpoint fails to accept that individual choice inside the larger framework of corporate or consumer capitalism is largely meaningless. Social change doesn't happen as the result of millions of individuals acting as individuals, but when individuals gather together and demand a change as a group.
When Chipotle rejects both the notion of slaughtered animals for food and the for-profit model that feeds millions into the hands of a few stockholders, then they can lay claim to a moral standard. Until then, they're nothing but McDonald's for middle-class liberals with guilt issues.