Here’s the thing: I love Chipotle.
I’m not proud of it. In fact, every time I carry my burrito bowl topped with that fresh pico and delicious carnitas out the door, I always feel like I’m betraying my agricultural family. Not because I don’t believe in naturally raised meat — that’s not it at all. I think farmers raising organic and naturally raised animals have clearly filled a niche worth filling and that’s excellent. No, I always feel guilty because Chipotle has taken that niche market of naturally raised meat and used it to denigrate conventionally produced meat.
First of all, let’s get one thing straight: I think the naturally raised meat and the conventionally raised meat taste just the same. The only reason I like Chipotle is because of the way they prepare the food — not the way it was raised.
Still, Chipotle stands by the mantra that antibiotic-free, naturally raised meat tastes better. And they sell that mantra by the bushel to their customers. But that sales pitch may be coming to an end due to beef supply shortages.
This sign, posted at my local Chipotle, announces the supply shortages the chain is facing. Just this week, Chipotle announced it would consider sourcing cattle previously treated with antibiotics to combat the shortages.
In an article by Bloomberg News, Chipotle execs say they may start allowing some antibiotic-treated beef into their supply chain. Which is, no doubt, a good thing. After all, those of us who work in production agriculture know that animals treated with antibiotics aren’t any different from those that aren’t. And having a chain like Chipotle, which has taken a hard-line stance against any kind of antibiotic use, give its blessing to more conventionally raised meat is a step in the right direction.
Bloomberg’s article is a different story.
“Many experts, including some of our ranchers, believe that animals should be allowed to be treated if they are ill and remain in the herd,” Co-Chief Executive Officer Steve Ells said today in an e-mailed statement. “We are certainly willing to consider this change, but we are continuing to evaluate what’s best for our customers, our suppliers and the animals.”
If Chipotle allows sick animals treated with antibiotics to remain in its supply chain, it will increase the amount of beef available to the company, said John Nalivka, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture economist and president of commodity researcher Sterling Marketing Inc. in Vale, Oregon.
What does that sound like to you? To me, it sounds like animals given antibiotics — even if it is just to treat an illness — must be teeming with drugs the minute they enter the supply chain. In the words of my sister, “They make it sound like that meat has been marinating in antibiotics.”
It’s unfortunate that the article comes off that way, especially because that’s just not the way antibiotics in food animals work. So, here are just a few things you need to know about antibiotics and your food:
- Before beef, pork or milk is sent to the grocery stores or restaurants, it’s tested and inspected by the Food Safety Inspection Service to make sure there are no antibiotic residues.
- Just like you treat your kids with antibiotics when they’re sick, farmers treat their animals with antibiotics when they’re sick. They do it because it’s humane and, simply, the right thing to do.
- Drug withdrawal times must be strictly observed. In other words, farmers must monitor withdrawal times on drugs, ranging from hours to days, before sending an animal to market.
- Farmers only give animals antibiotics under the guidance of a veterinarian. Just like a doctor advises you on dosage and the amount of time to take a medication, veterinarians do the same with farmers’ animals.
- The FDA does not approve the use of antibiotics until they undergo a vigorous review for safety to animals, humans, and the environment. The FDA approval process ensures that food products from animals treated with antibiotics are safe.
- Farm organizations have procedures and programs in place to help farmers use antibiotics safely. For example, the Pork Quality Assurance Plus program, which emphasizes judicious and strategic use of antibiotics, has been in place since 1989.
- Antibiotics are important in animal medicine, just like in human medicine, helping to maintain animal health and reduce suffering from disease. When you calculate the number and size of food-producing animals, the use of antibiotics in animals approximates the use of antibiotics in humans.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You can find plenty of good, reliable information on antibiotics in food animals here, here, here, and here.
At any rate, cheers to Chipotle. I hope this foray, even if it is only a trial run, turns into a long-term thing and shows Chipotle just how caring, conscientious and careful ‘traditional’ farmers are.