Chipotle Mexican Grill announced that it is reconsidering its policy of not using any beef treated with antibiotics. Chipotle is sticking to its slogan of “responsibly raised” livestock which eventually becomes the beef that fills its burritos, but their commitment to using no beef from cows treated with antibiotics has caused them to run into supply issues: Chipotle has had trouble finding enough available cows that aren’t fed antibiotics as part of their diet, and so they are considering expanding the policy to include beef from cows who were given antibiotics to treat a specific illness.
Some of you may be scratching your heads. Why give cows antibiotics if they don’t have a specific illness? Because cows are fed corn, instead of a diet more suited to their stomachs, which would consist of a lot of grass. They are fed corn because corn is extremely cheap in the U.S., which is because the U.S. government subsidizes every acre of corn, incentivizing farmers to plant way more corn than is needed, and so we end up with a situation where corn + antibiotics is cheaper than a more cow friendly diet of grass and grains. Cows now consume more antibiotics in the U.S. than humans (not counting the antibiotics that humans get in their beef).
That is why Chipotle is one of the most important companies in the U.S., and why everyone has a stake in their decision. Chipotle does a great job of talking the talk on environmental issues from antibiotics to monocultures to locally sourced food. They are probably the largest restaurant chain in the U.S. with anything close to that level of environmental commitment. While they need to adapt to market conditions to supply their customers with beef while still adhering to their principles, we need to let them know that their principles are important to us. Perhaps Chipotle, with 1430 restaurants in the U.S. as of December, can shift the beef market toward one where there is more antibiotic-free beef available.
I don’t pretend to understand the beef market better than Chipotle does, but I do know that American beef consumption is a major source of environmental damage and that the use of antibiotics develops super bugs, which are resistant to antibiotics. It’s important that Chipotle knows that their customers value their environmental commitment.
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