Chipotle Should Raise Prices, Keep Meat Antibiotic-Free

By Sarah Burrows

Fast-food giant could reverse “natural” beef shortage, if consumers agree to pay more

Chipotle Mexican Grill made headlines all over the country last week when it announced it was considering selling meat from cows treated with antibiotics because of a growing demand for, and shrinking supply of, naturally raised beef.

The comparatively ethical and environmentally friendly fast-food chain is famous for serving “food with integrity” – antibiotic- and hormone-free beef, pork and chicken, rBGH-free dairy from mostly pasture-raised cows and organic, local produce when available.

But now, because of a nationwide beef shortage – thanks to drought and increased grain prices – Chipotle is considering bending its rules to allow meat from animals given antibiotics only to treat illness, not to prevent disease or promote weight gain, into its regular supply chain.

The beef shortage, coupled with an ever-growing demand for Chipotle’s barbacoa and steak burritos, already has caused the chain to use conventional beef in some areas of the country over the last year and a half. Only 80 to 85-percent of beef sold in its restaurants so far this year was naturally raised, compared with nearly 100 percent in 2012.

During shortages, Chipotle said its restaurants clearly label conventional meats, so customers can avoid them if they choose. But under the new policy it’s considering, meat from cows treated with antibiotics for illness and then returned to the herd would be considered “naturally raised.”

Chipotle has been serving naturally raised meat with no antibiotics since 1999. Last year, the company sold served more than 120 million pounds of “responsibly raised” beef, pork, and chicken.

“We just need more (and it isn’t there),” Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold toldBusinessweek.

“The supply of naturally raised beef is certainly tight,” he said. “So it is definitely a challenge to get everything we need, and right now, we can’t get all that we need.”


Chipotle-nomics

An info-graphic on Chipotle’s website suggest the company’s executives understand simple economics – when demand for something rises, supply follows (unless government gets in the way).

In a free market (which, admittedly, we don’t always have) when demand for something goes up and causes a shortage, prices go up. In turn, producers have more incentive to produce, and, surprise, supply goes up. Problem solved.

That’s what we (consumers who want real food) need to happen here.

Chipotle’s in a tough position right now. If it serves antibiotic-laced meat, its health-conscious customers are going to raise hell; if it raises its prices, money-strapped, liberal college students who think corporations “owe us” affordable healthy food are going to raise hell. But there’s only one way out of this natural-meat supply shortage, and unfortunately that is a more expensive burrito (at least until supply increases). Well, there is one other thing that could help – 100-percent grass-fed beef, that doesn’t rely on grain, fossil fuel or as much water to produce… but then there would have to be an increased demand for that too.

So as much as many of us want to paint a bull’s eye on Chipotle right now, it’s up to us to decide what we want. If we ask for it, and are willing to pay for it (in cash, not tax-funded subsidies to corn and conventional cattle), Chipotle and the farmers will provide it.

Nobody’s saying it will be easy, but it’s time to help Chipotle “take us back to the start.”

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