Chipotle’s Mexican Carnitas Are Coming Back, Thanks to British Pork

The chain is going international to find meat that meets its strict standards.

(Photo: Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Jul 13, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Last week, The New York Times had most of the Internet turn on it after a recipe from Melissa Clark suggested the addition of fresh peas to guacamole. “Trust us,” a Times Twitter feed said, authoritatively. Alas, most people, including the president of the United States, did not. Today, Chipotle did something similar in the arena of corporate procurement policy with a promise that soon its stores would see more authentically Mexican-spiced, long-simmered pork—British pork.

Yes, carnitas will return to Chipotle menus by the end of the year, after many a pork-free month. The chain dropped the meat from many locations after finding that its major supplier of “responsibly raised pork” had failed to meet a number of its welfare standards, which are far more strict than most in the industry.

Discouragingly for pigs and the people who care about them, the United States, the world’s No. 2 pork producer, is incapable of meeting those standards on the scale Chipotle requires. Instead, the firm is turning to British firm Karro Food Group, which raises hogs in England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, for its responsibly raised pork.

“It has always been our preference to get our pork (and other meats) from domestic suppliers, but right now the supply simply isn’t available,” a Chipotle spokesperson told CNNMoney last week. “Upwards of 95 percent of pork produced in this country is conventionally raised, so the available supply that meets our high standards is relatively small.”

So, Why Should You Care? Through the 1960s, it was common for pigs to be raised outside in conditions not unlike those required by Chipotle. In 1969, the average number of pigs sold per farm was 138; in 1992, that number hit 588. As the number of pigs at each farm increased over the decades, production was moved indoors, and the total number of farms dropped. According to USDA data, operations with more than 5,000 animals are the minority of producers—less than 5 percent—but account for more than 50 percent of pigs produced in the U.S. With 10,000 hogs producing as much manure as a city of 25,000 people, such concentrated livestock operations create massive amounts of waste (just ask the Chesapeake Bay) and fail to provide the animals with humane living conditions.

There’s no federal or industry data on the number of pastured pigs in the United States—pigs that would likely meet Chipotle’s standards—but research from Iowa State University put it at between 500,000 and 750,000 in 2006. Iowa, the leading pork producer in the country, is home to more than 20 million hogs, according to the USDA’s latest Quarterly Hogs and Pigs Report.

This isn’t the first time Chipotle has had to look overseas for meat suppliers. The chain sources grass-fed beef from Australia—a leading source of American beef imports—much to the frustration of domestic cattle and environmental groups. Ranchers say they’re more than capable of meeting both the demand and the standards that Chipotle requires, while the Natural Resources Defense Council questions the environmental bona fides of buying “responsibly raised” meat from half a world away.

“We hope that importing from abroad is a temporary measure while they work to improve and transform the U.S. supply chain,” NRDC’s Doug Sims told BuzzFeed last year. “Clearly, the best option is to minimize transport costs and impacts and have more U.S. sources of better beef.”

But with British carnitas on Chipotle’s menu alongside Australian barbacoa, that goal appears far off.