Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Chipotle pulls pork from menu after animal welfare violation

Mexican food chain’s problem with supplier’s treatment of pigs underlines the challenges of sourcing natural food

Chipotle, a Mexican-food chain that says it aims to serve “food with integrity,” announced Wednesday that it won’t serve pork at a significant number of its U.S. restaurants because of problems with a supplier that didn’t raise animals to its standards.

According to Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold, the company learned on Jan. 9 that one of its suppliers violated its animal welfare requirements, namely that animals raised for food purposes be housed humanely and allowed outdoor access. As a result, Chipotle decided for the first time to stop selling carnitas, the pork it serves in burritos and tacos, at about one-third of its restaurants, according to The Associated Press.

“It’s hard to say how long it will last,” Arnold told the AP of the moratorium on pork, which accounts for about 6 to 7 percent of Chipotle’s orders. He did not specify which supplier had committed the offense.

While the Denver-based restaurant chain expanded to 1,724 restaurants across the country by the third quarter of 2014, its stated goal is to serve locally sourced food, including some organic produce and meat that is raised humanely and without antibiotics or hormones whenever possible.

While that’s not always feasible — most of Chipotle’s food contains genetically modified organisms, and not all its beef meets its standards of being hormone- and antibiotic-free — Chipotle has been a visible player in a movement in which consumers demand more natural food.

In 2011, Chipotle released an animated ad illustrating the problems of industrial farming, featuring animals pumped full of hormones and a Willie Nelson cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” a poignant song that urges listeners to “go back to the start.” The video became a viral sensation, pushing the company to center stage as a fast-food chain that uniquely championed sustainability.

While consumers’ demands for organic, locally sourced food have skyrocketed, restaurants and other food sellers have sometimes found it difficult to keep up with demand — just as Chipotle has with pork.

“There is a lingering concern that domestic supply of organic food is not keeping pace with the demand,” said Edward Jaenicke, an agricultural economics professor at Penn State University whose research focuses on organic food marketing and consumer behavior.

He said that organic food makes up about 4 percent of the U.S. food market; before the 2008 recession, sales of organic food products were increasing at about 20 percent per year. After dipping for a few years, organic product sales surged by 11.5 percent in 2013 to reach $35.1 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association.  

“It’s still a very fast-growing market, but in the U.S., organic acreage is growing at a small rate,” Jaenicke said. “A lot of the difference has been made up of imported organic food.”

In fact, the U.S. imported $1.4 billion worth of organic food in 2013, according to the USDA, which doesn’t track all organic imports; it created the codes for tracking them only in 2011, so the real amount is likely larger.

“I know the industry is pushing in this [organic, sustainable] direction, but I think there is a huge adjustment for these companies to make this transition,” Jaenicke said.

Still, some small purveyors have managed to grow along with the rising demand and sell their products on a national level. Organic Valley, for one, started in 1988 as a small group of organic dairy farmers in Wisconsin and has become the country’s largest source of organic milk, posting sales of nearly $1 billion in 2013.

With wire services

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter