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Beef on a Boat

June 19, 2014

This is something new. Welcome to part two of yesterday’s post. I don’t typically do this type of thing. Yesterday I had something to say about the deep and complex supply chains of our global food supply, and there were two different examples I wanted to share.

The problem with deep and complex supply chains is that they are deep and complicated. So it took a bit longer to share the story of Slaves to Shrimp than I had thought, and I didn’t want to overwhelm anyone with too many words in one day. You’re busy. I can respect that. Heck, I wouldn’t want to read 2,000 words on global food supply chains either.

Just as a refresher, I had mentioned the things that I enjoy thanks to the global food trade. One of them was value-priced grassfed beef from Australia. It’s pretty simple. That’s the way beef is raised down under. There are no antibiotics, no synthetic hormones. It’s good clean beef. The funny thing is that this grassfed product is Australia’s “conventional” beef and as a result of its scale is remarkably inexpensive.

So what’s not to love? Well, here’s where things get complicated again. Maybe you remember this video from a little while back.

The video is called Back to the Start, and it shows how a small farm expanded over time into a large scale manufacturing operation. This naturally includes the creation of a massive transportation infrastructure. Upon reflection of what had happened to his farm, the farmer decided to get back to a simpler way of producing food.

I think Chipotle may need to take a hard look at itself and see what it has become.

Last month Steve Ells wrote an op-ed in the HuffPo explaining why Chipotle would be buying grassfed Australian beef. The reasons are sound. Feeding animals on pasture is a much more sensible approach than planting a gazillion acres of GMO corn and soy just to fatten them all up. Australian beef also doesn’t have that pesky problem of antibiotics or hormones used to speed the cow’s growth.

Given how I feel about grassfed beef, you might think that I’d be doing backflips at this good news. Perhaps I should.

But let’s go back to the video for a second. It ends with the farmer putting his wares on a Chipotle truck and it driving off out of frame. Chipotle has made commitments to local food, celebrates it in the restaurants, and has done a lot to create a market for organic beans, cheese made from the milk of cows not treated with rBST, and sustainably raised meats.

Chipotle has been a major proponent of better food in America, and that’s why I’ve been such a long time fan. Shipping in beef from 8,000 miles away, even if it’s better beef, feels like a step backwards.

So what would I have them do?

Well, I remember going into my very first Chipotle in the SF Bay Area and being thrilled with its use of Niman Ranch pork. The chain’s beef wasn’t up to the same standard, and I remember getting in touch with someone at Chipotle back then, and he let me know that there wasn’t enough Niman Ranch beef (at the time) to supply the restaurant’s needs.

As better beef became available, some markets were able to get it while others couldn’t. But the animal husbandry practices of Chipotle’s pork producers has always exceeded those of its beef producers. For those of us who care, it hasn’t tarnished Chipotle’s reputation, rather it has just informed our ordering choices from the menu.

In yesterday’s story about CP Foods being forced to deal with the issue of slave labor on the boats that supply its fishmeal, the company decided to tackle the problem head on. The shrimp farm is working with the boat operators and supplying financial incentives to eliminate slavery and human degradation by next year.

There are plenty of small domestic grassfed beef producers that could sell Chiptole meat. But many of them haven’t figured out how to get the Chipotle truck from the video to make a pickup at their farm.

A while ago I was told that Chipotle’s steak generally comes from a cut called the ball tip. My notes are vague when it comes to the cuts used for the barbacoa. But with the chain’s simple menu, that’s it. Just a handful of cuts. And the truth is that small ranchers aren’t great at the custom butchery end of the business.

Still, if our local Whole Foods can have a dedicated “Local Forager” who works with small regional producers and helps them through the process of getting into the market, I have to imagine an enterprise like Chipotle could have people on staff to wrangle the challenges of better beef production in America.

In the meantime, I’d still prefer for Chipotle to buy the best that can be found domestically and support small family farmers who are working to raise their cows more sustainably. Maybe it’s not perfect. Maybe it’s not up to the brand’s highest ideals. But Chipotle can help them get there, and in the meantime adjust the signs in each store to accurately reflect the beef being sold.

Maybe I’m being too hard on the brand. Maybe the best way to impact change is to taunt American producers with money being spent overseas, and the promise that as soon as there is sufficient domestic production that money can go to US grassfed operations.

But I do worry. Given the size and efficiencies of the Australian grassfed beef industry, it’s unlikely this money will ever make it back to US, unless oil prices spike so dramatically that shipping the meat becomes cost prohibitive. It doesn’t take a genius to figure this out. So perhaps instead of inspiring the American cattle industry to do better, US farmers might just throw in the towel.

Right now Chipotle continues to support those US ranchers who are producing beef raised without antibiotics or synthetic hormones. Mr. Ells makes that clear in his op-ed. That’s great. And Chipotle has indicated a desire to move more in the direction of grassfed beef. That’s great too.

However, this could be the writing on the wall for those American farmers who still sell beef to the restaurant.

It sounds like Chipotle may be improving the quality of the food it is putting on the plate at the expense of its grander ideals of improving the state of food and food production in America.

Today, Chipotle has a centralized kitchen in Chicago that prepares all of the restaurant’s braised meats and beans for distribution to its restaurants around the country. Combine that with its lengthening global supply chain for beef and the restaurant is looking more and more like that farmer in the video.

Like I said. This is complicated stuff. Tomorrow I’ll go back to something simple.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 19, 2014 10:04 am

    Paul Willis’ Niman Ranch pork model is that many family farms share standard feed and husbandry protocols and go to a shared slaughterhouse at which point their product is intermingled on the way to market. That’s how there is “enough” pork for Chipotle. (Actually there isn’t. For some time Chipotle has been using a variety of pork suppliers, though I assume they all follow the same process as Niman Ranch.)

    If American beef ranchers want to make themselves attractive to chains like Chipotle, maybe they should do something similar. One-off buying by a “local forager” may be endearing, but in addition to being inefficient it doesn’t guarantee a standard product.

    By the way, Niman Ranch beef is grass fed, grain finished. Your subtext is that grass fed is a vector of “clean” beef. Care to expand on that sometime? (Keeping in mind that it’s possible to feed an animal grain without putting it in an inhumane feedlot situation.)

  2. Aaron M permalink
    June 19, 2014 12:05 pm

    Nice series of posts. I recall seeing something (an article, a post, an NPR story, who knows) about Australian lamb and the ‘something’ made the case that it was, in fact, more ecologically efficient to boat over lamb from Australia than to buy locally. The reason being that given the natural environment of Australia (which sounds similar to what you describe about their ability to do cheap grass-fed beef), it would take a local farmer a massive infrastructural investment into their land to yield a similar product. So, the lamb itself may come from a farm 10 miles down the road, but that farm may have also had to use more fertilizer, burn more fossil fuels to run their tractors to get their soil just right, etc. etc., and the things needed to do that likely came from thousands of miles away. Perhaps I’m recounting an example that has hence been shown to be bunk, but given other ‘somethings’ that I’ve seen about small farms and abuses of farm labor, at the very least it raises the question of what is the calculus that we are trying to achieve? If it’s less ecological impact and better working and living conditions for agricultural labor, then a fair evaluation of, say, Australian grass fed beef on an 8,000 boat journey versus 100-mile radius local grass-fed beef needs to consider all of the inputs, not just transportation infrastructure. I’m sure you’ve encountered this argument before (probably in this blog and elsewhere), so I guess I’m curious what your take on it is.

    • June 20, 2014 8:53 pm

      That was an article in the New Yorker 5 years or so back. I reported on it either here or on another local blog in a similar discussion, so that’s where you may have seen it. The New Yorker’s archives are behind a paywall so it’s not very search friendly, but the article is worth digging for. Please post the link if you find it.

  3. June 19, 2014 1:51 pm

    As a dedicated reader of your blog, I would love to hear more about your particular relationship to managing your carbon footprint, as it is tied to consumption but not entirely. My philosophy, which is emerging (as I hope all philosophies are), is that the purchase of all products locally has such a profound impact on the carbon use linked to my dollar that local consumption has the capacity to trump some (note: some) aspects of sustainably-produced products that require significant shipping. This is, of course, a balancing act. I’d love to read about how you perceive and load the scales of such a complex relationship. Your last couple blogs about the global supply chain were eye-opening.

    • June 20, 2014 8:55 pm

      Re carbon footprint: I attended a Long Tomorrow talk awhile back with the guy from South Africa who proposes to get energy from kites high in the atmosphere… you know, that guy. He said he had pretty much stopped flying because there was no way he could justify the carbon footprint.

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