Don’t buy the Chipotle hype: There’s no such thing as “humane” slaughter

The chain has earned praise for promoting animal welfare — but there's no getting past the bloody truth

Topics: Chipotle, meat industry, factory farming, animal slaughter, Fast food, , ,

Don't buy the Chipotle hype: There's no such thing as "humane" slaughter (Credit: Mediagram via Shutterstock)

If there is one restaurant that has increasingly garnered favor with the vegetarian and animal advocacy crowds in recent years, it is undoubtedly the fast-growing, fast-casual Chipotle Mexican Grill.

The evidence is unambiguous: Chipotle won People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ (PETA) Peta2 Libby Award for Best Vegan-Friendly Restaurant Chain in both 2011 and 2012. Last year, the restaurant’s new sofritas – shredded, braised, spiced tofu – made three of VegNews Magazine’s top 15 vegan news stories, and took home PETA’s Best New Vegan Food Item award. (That product has just launched nationwide.) Chipotle also ditched the bacon in — and thereby veganized — its pinto beans. The chain has even garnered praise from the Humane Society of the United States.

This is no accident. Chipotle has hardly been shy about promoting its vegan options or professing its commitment to animal welfare. The company has put up billboards proclaiming that it is “Pro-Chicken,” and that its animals have been “Raised with Care.” It also produced two animated shorts decrying the horrors of factory farming: “Back to the Start” and the much-buzzed-about “The Scarecrow,” which also spawned a companion iPhone game.

Just last month, Chipotle premiered an original Hulu series, “Farmed and Dangerous,” in which a young, bright-eyed, farmer-activist “committed to better farming practices” takes on the PR machine behind evil, industrial “Animoil.” The four episodes of “Farmed and Dangerous” cost Chipotle about $1 million, which may indeed prove to be money well-spent, as Chipotle’s explosive growth has been attributed to the story the company tells about how its food differs from other fast food. Between 2007 and 2013, Chipotle more than tripled the amount of “natural” and “responsibly” raised meat it served, to over 130 million pounds.

This is all part of Chipotle’s commitment to serving what it calls “food with integrity,” which includes “treat[ing] animals with dignity and respect” and “allow[ing] them to display their natural tendencies.” Founder and co-CEO Steve Ells has explicitly promised to run his business “in a way that doesn’t exploit animals.”

So why are animal rights activists protesting against Chipotle?

The protests began last March when a small group of Bay Area activists with Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) disrupted two Chipotle restaurants in Oakland and Berkeley. The activists stood in line like regular customers, but when they approached the counter, they unfurled a banner that took direct aim at Chipotle’s rhetoric: “Responsibly Raised? Unconditionally Loved? Brutally Murdered,” it read.

After activists in six cities staged “die-ins” at Chipotle restaurants in October, the protests started gaining momentum. By November, they had spread to 11 cities in the U.S. and Canada and by December to 16 cities. Now, the initially sporadic protests have developed into a campaign against Chipotle with the tag line, “It’s not food. It’s violence.” DxE, which I have advised on communications matters, holds protests against Chipotle at least once a month.

I asked Wayne Hsiung, one of DxE’s organizers and a personal friend, about the rationale behind protesting a company that appears to be at least nominally attending to animal advocates’ concerns. “When you look under the ethical veneer, there are few (if any) companies worse than Chipotle,” Hsiung said. “Sure, it offers a vegan burrito. Yes, it pays lip service to animal welfare. But it is one of the fastest growing animal killers in the world. It spends millions of dollars every year on ‘humane washing’—deceiving the public with fraudulent claims of ‘respectful’ conditions. But killing is inherently a violent, not humane, act.”

Chipotle has come under fire before — for example, when it reverted to factory-farmed meat when the supply of “responsibly raised” meat has run short. And even industry publications have joined in outing Chipotle for sourcing from the West Coast’s largest ranch. The company has been shown overstating its claims and marketing itself with terms, like “natural,” which have no actual regulatory meaning. In short, Chipotle has been criticized for failing to live up to its own hyperbole.

None of this, however, gets to the heart of DxE’s complaint. The group is not protesting Chipotle for having fallen short of its “humane” claims. They are taking issue with those claims themselves.

“There is no such thing as ‘humane slaughter,’” DxE says on its website, “and yet mainstream discussion of animal abuse is dominated by questions of ‘care’ rather than ‘killing.’ We need to shift this debate away from bigger cages and better deaths, and back to the central issue: whether we should be killing animals at all.” In short, DxE is not saying that Chipotle is misleading the public by falsely claiming to “[do] things the right way.” They are saying there is no right way to do the wrong thing.

The protests are certainly thought provoking. Ever since the food-culture zeitgeist swung strongly against factory farming, “humane” treatment has become the presumed alternative to an undeniably brutal system. But DxE’s protests raise the question of whether, in the frenzy to market and consume more humane animal products, we are completely ignoring the fundamental moral issue. Why, for example, is cutting off chickens’ beaks unacceptable cruelty, but cutting their throats is perfectly fine?

Even if we put aside the hardly trivial matter that many standard industry practices — such as un-anesthetized mutilations and intensive confinement –are routine in “humane” animal agriculture, as well as the fact that large-scale production requires efficient mass killing. The most unadorned slaughter is still hard to stomach — Chickens writhing and shrieking (Warning: graphic video) after having their throats slit; terrified cows struggling to escape the chute that leads to death; and pigs that are “as happy as happiness” unsuspectingly hauled off to a slaughter plant.

Indeed, an interesting paradox arises as we increasingly recognize that meat, dairy, and eggs come from individual animals with interests, emotions, and the ability to form relationships. There is something deeply disturbing about an animal coming to trust and feel safe in someone’s care, only to be betrayed in the most profound way by that same person—less brutal (maybe) than industrialized production, but equally wrong. But this is the best that can ever come from something as Orwellian as “humane slaughter.”

Pasture-based pig farmer Bob Comis has written movingly about being “haunted by the ghosts of nearly 2,000 happy pigs” that he has transformed into “happy meat,” and the “final crisis of conscience” that drove him, just a few weeks ago, to become a vegetarian and start winding down his life as a pig farmer. (Comis has also demystified many of the terms tossed around by companies hawking their wares as more humane; explaining, for example, that pigs raised in “deeply bedded pens,” like an unknown number of Chipotle’s, are most often raised “intensively” in what are “essentially humane CAFOs”—that is, factory farms.)

DxE hopes to similarly haunt a company that is recasting its meat and dairy products as, in the words of Elizabeth Weiss in The New Yorker, “not only tasty, [but also] virtuous.” It is a curious kind of virtue in which “happier, healthier lives” for the animals is good not only because the animals live better, but because such treatment also produces “the best pork we’ve ever tasted.”

Indeed, sales of Chipotle’s carnitas doubled, notwithstanding a price increase, when the restaurant switched to “all-natural” pork.

Can a corporation that serves millions upon millions of pounds of meat and dairy — and keeps selling more and more — avoid exploiting animals? After all, the upshot of Chipotle’s masterful marketing has been explosive growth: A 1000 percent increase in market capitalization over the past 5 years. The company opened 185 stores last year, and it plans to add nearly 200 more in 2014. Co-CEO Monty Moran says “there’s room for thousands more.”

In the last Quarter of 2013, each of Chipotle’s nearly 1600 stores brought in an average of $622 more per day, compared to the same period in 2012.  According to Bloomberg Businessweek, this last quarter’s growth amounts to about 80 more burritos per store per day. Unless all these additional burritos are filled with beans and sofritas — the latter of which currently account for a mere 3 percent of sales in the 40 percent of Chipotle restaurants where they have been introduced – and left off the cheese and sour cream, the number of animals slaughtered and exploited by Chipotle is increasing.

All of this makes Chipotle a pretty formidable opponent for a small group of grassroots activists, even if their numbers, too, are growing. But Hsiung says DxE is undaunted by the David-vs.-Goliath odds and that the group’s goals are not economic, but cultural. “Triggering a much-needed dialogue on the status of non-human animals, not costing Chipotle a few dollars and cents, is our primary campaign objective,” he told me.

What these activists are doing isn’t targeting Chipotle so much as using it as an arena in which to start a public debate about the morality of eating animals.  From all appearances, Chipotle’s marketing seems to have created the ideal stage upon which to do it. After all, one “natural tendency” that Chipotle clearly has no interest in allowing the animals to display is their tendency to want to live.

Lauren Gazzola is a longtime animal rights activist. Follow @LaurenGazzola.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...