OPENING the door for a possible change in its long-held "never, ever" antibiotic policy, quick-casual burrito chain Chipotle said last week it is evaluating its current protocol in relation to treatment of sick animals.
While chief executive officer Steve Ells reaffirmed the company's current purchasing standards, the chain's founder did allow the possibility that Chipotle's "no antibiotics" standard could become a little more flexible in the future.
"We are always looking to improve our protocols in order to ensure that we are buying the very best, sustainably raised ingredients," Ells said in a statement. "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."
He said Chipotle is "willing to consider this change" but continues to evaluate what would be best for customers, suppliers and animals. Its current protocol stipulates that animals treated with antibiotics must be removed from the company's supply chain.
Chipotle has drawn attention in recent years for posting notices at some locations that ingredients may differ from the company's advertised standards for "responsibly raised" beef, pork and chicken. Ells said the company does occasionally experience supply shortfalls that generally last a few weeks and affect just a small percentage of its restaurants at a given time.
During a forum on modern food production held at The Ohio State University in February, a Chipotle spokesperson discussed the practice, noting that beef is, more often than not, the product affected by such shortfalls during certain times of the year.
A show of hands indicated that, of the more than 300 college students in attendance at the forum, nearly all had seen such signs at the restaurants, and very few altered their purchasing decisions due to the conventionally produced ingredients.
A company spokesman told several media outlets earlier this month that Chipotle was considering the protocol, prompting speculation that Chipotle had made the switch as a cost-saving measure.
Ells' statement reiterated that no change in policy had been made but confirmed that the company is considering a provision to allow animals "to be treated with antibiotics only when necessary for their continued health."
Chipotle noted that it served more than 120 million lb. of beef, pork and chicken in 2012 produced through its stringent supplier protocols.
Company spokesman Chris Arnold told reporters last week that sourcing beef produced without antibiotics was becoming more difficult — and more costly — telling Bloomberg Business Week that only 80-85% of the company's beef had been "naturally raised" this year, compared with nearly 100% last year.
The beef with antibiotics
Chipotle started serving meat from animals not treated with antibiotics or growth promotants more than a decade ago, Ells said. The company claims that it is the largest restaurant seller of "responsibly raised" meat in the country.
"We continue to be committed to the elimination of antibiotics that are used to promote growth in livestock being raised in confinement operations," he said.
The current hubbub over Chipotle's policy comes on the heels of a social media dustup involving antibiotic claims by quick-casual bakery Panera Bread. A recent campaign referring to conventionally produced chicken as "EZ Chicken" seemed to paint antibiotic use as the tool of lazy farmers rather than a method of keeping animals healthy.
Panera's campaign, which featured an interactive website claiming that antibiotic use in poultry production is contributing to antibiotic resistance in humans, sparked a Twitter campaign by agricultural advocates.
The agricultural community backlash did lead the retailer to alter some of its marketing, including deleting the EZ Chicken Twitter feed.
"We truly didn't mean to offend the farming community with the posts and apologize for how the campaign was received," Panera said via its Facebook page. "We have incredibly strong and personal relationships with our farmers, and we could not be the company we are today without their hard work. We appreciate the feedback on how EZ Chicken was received and are removing all references to it from our posts on Facebook and Twitter."
Panera's miscues and Chipotle's back and forth highlight the challenge suppliers and retailers face in the current food marketing universe. Consumer trends and internal research may support buzzwords and catchphrases such as "antibiotic free" or "all natural," but the economic and public relations realities of such campaigns are not nearly so clear-cut.