Dude, Where’s My Carnitas? Why Chipotle Pulled the Plug on Pork [UPDATED]

After the restaurant found out a pork supplier was violating its standards for humanely raised animals, it pulled carnitas from hundreds of stores.

Free-pork Chipotle burrito. (Photo: Flickr)

Jan 14, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Josh Scherer has written for Epicurious, Thrillist, and Los Angeles magazine. He is constantly covered in corn chip crumbs.

UPDATED Jan. 16, 2015

With help from a longtime pork supplier, Chipotle has solved its carnitas crisis.

In its 22 years of existence, Chipotle has rightfully positioned itself as the vanguard of quick-serve ethics.

It was the first restaurant chain to voluntarily label all GMO ingredients, it publicly condemned diners who brought assault rifles into its stores, and every time Chick-fil-A held a “pro-family” rally, it seemed Chipotle was right across the street, proudly flying its rainbow flag.

In keeping with its ethics-first tradition, Chipotle just pulled carnitas from about one-third of its locations because pigs from one of its main suppliers were found to have substandard living conditions.

“Conventionally raised pigs generally do not have access to the outdoors; spend their lives in densely crowded buildings; live on hard, slatted floors with no ability to root; and are given antibiotics to keep them from getting sick,” Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said in an interview with Bloomberg. “We would rather not serve pork at all than serve pork from animals raised in that way.”

Sacrificing profits for the happiness of those pre-burritoed animals would seem to speak volumes about Chipotle’s commitment to making morally sound Mexican food. Or does it?

Unlike its hogs, Arnold has admitted that about 20 percent of the restaurant’s cows are “conventionally raised.” That means the animals are subjected to the harsh conditions the company so emphatically condemns. We all remember the sad-faced cattle from that Fiona Apple video, after all.

So why 86 the inhumane pork and keep the inhumane beef? That carnitas only accounts for 6 or 7 percent of all orders might have something to do with it.

Beef, on the other hand, constitutes two of Chipotle’s four animal proteins—steak and barbacoa. It simply wouldn’t be profitable for the quick-serve giant to only use ethically sourced cows, so it has to skim the moral margins to make ends meet.

But this meaty discrepancy speaks more to the overall difficulty of balancing local and ethical sourcing with national-level supply chains. Chipotle’s unprecedentedly fast national expansion forced it to make some ideological sacrifices. If it stayed a local, purely organic venture, then it wouldn’t have influenced the fast-food world the way it has.

“We have never professed to being perfect,” Arnold said in a 2013 Mother Jones feature. “Rather, the commitment we have made is to constant improvement, and we are always working to find better, more sustainable sources for all of the ingredients we use.”