Chipotle’s Carnitas Recession Has Turned Into a Carnitas Depression

The burrito mega-chain, friend to casual Tex-Mex lunchers everywhere, can’t seem to find enough pork that fits its standards.

(Photo: Flickr/CreativeCommons)

Apr 10, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Josh Scherer has written for Epicurious, Thrillist, and Los Angeles magazine. He is constantly covered in corn chip crumbs.

When the Great Carnitas Recession of 2015 hit Chipotle in early January, the 6 percent of burrito eaters who order the shredded pork filling were crushed. One-third of all locations pulled it from steam tables overnight because a pork supplier was found to have substandard living conditions for its animals—and Chipotle entered a deep, dark, two-day funk before it announced that a solution was on the way.

Niman Ranch, a network of family farms that specializes in raising natural cattle and hogs, pledged to increase its pork supply to Chipotle by 20 percent until the chain found a more permanent solution. Hope—it seemed—was once again restored. But the signs with various iterations of “Sorry, No Carnitas” stayed plastered on the windows.

Two months later, one-third of Chipotle’s pork vats are still empty.

“We don’t know for sure when we’ll be fully supplied again,” Chris Arnold, a Chipotle spokesman, said Thursday in an interview with Bloomberg. “For many years, we’ve been operating in a system where the primary food supply doesn’t meet our standards.”

Niman Ranch indeed increased its supply, but, like a burrito-headed hydra, for every Chipotle that received emergency carnitas, a new one in dire need of pork sprang up. The company added 200 locations in 2014 will add 200 more in 2015, and in the next few years it plans to introduce a lower-cost, takeaway-only restaurant prototype that could account for a majority of locations.

In short: Chipotle has expanded too fast for its suppliers to keep up.

According to the company website, all its carnitas is made from “pigs that are raised outside or in deeply bedded pens, are never given antibiotics and are fed a vegetarian diet.”

Chipotle also states that it has sourced 100 percent of its pigs from farmers who follow its standards ever since they were put in place back in 2001. That distinction is notably absent for its chicken and dairy cattle.

The effects of such rapid growth were felt in 2014 when Chipotle went through a similar (and far less reported) chicken and beef drought. Rather than cut barbacoa, chicken, and steak, which fill a hefty majority of burritos, from the menu, the restaurant sourced conventionally raised animals—and raised prices 6.3 percent.

Chipotle’s ability to put responsibly raised animals in its burritos is also being affected by other quick-serve competitors trying to get a piece of that sweet “natural foods” pie.

In early March, McDonald’s pledged to stop using chickens raised with antibiotics to try to ease its way into being the Chipotle of burger joints. The problem is that, as of 2014, only 9 percent of the $10 billion chicken industry was made up of antibiotic-free birds. But thanks to increased demand, the amount of farmers naturally raising animals is growing fast.

“We as farmers have always responded to what the market wants,” Iowa pig farmer Chuck Wirtz said to Bloomberg. “There are added costs to raise pigs that way. And up until recently, the market has not been willing to pay for that.”

You may be missing that carnitas, and you may be missing it hard. But know that ethically farmed, Chipotle-standard piglets are being raised by farmers across America right this minute.