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Chipotle breaks its commitment to local food and breaks our hearts

The recent E. coli outbreak has done more than tarnish Chipotle’s sterling reputation with fans — it may have also killed the chain’s mission to serve locally grown foods.

The chain announced that it is tightening its supplier standards even though the move could threaten its longstanding commitment to local sourcing. “We have elevated requirements for all of our produce suppliers (chiefly in the area of testing of ingredients) and we are not sure that all of the current local suppliers will be able to meet those elevated protocols,” Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold told Bloomberg in an email.

Ouch. The chain has run an initiative to support local and sustainable agriculture since 2008. It’s part of Chipotle’s brand. But take a look at its Food With Integrity page, and you’ll see talk of local sourcing is gone, replaced by a commitment to sourcing “the very best ingredients.”

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Arnold says this changed “both because the program is largely out of season” — it runs June through October in most parts of the U.S. — “and because we are not entirely sure what it will look like next year given some changes we have made.”

Oh, this news makes me feel sad. For years I’ve been trying to live up to my own commitment to support local agriculture. In some ways it’s gotten easier, as more and more people get on board. But in other ways it’s gotten harder.

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I’ve interviewed and spoken with small farmers and producers for years. I’ve heard all about how confusing, difficult and expensive it is to comply with standards, most of which were created for larger operations. It’s tough raising cattle and pork in a culture that eats only certain cuts, not the whole animal. It’s nearly impossible to get the attention, let alone a commitment, from restaurants and stores.

Because of Chipotle’s new standards, I know there are farmers right now shaking their heads sadly, wondering how they’ll stay afloat now that it’s become impossible to work with their biggest client.

But people were getting sick. Food safety is a complicated problem that’s sometimes easier to solve for bigger farms than for smaller ones. Chipotle can’t afford to keep supporting local farms at the risk of the public’s health.

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I think this shows that however good your intentions, bringing locally grown food to the masses is one hell of a puzzle that’s nearly impossible to solve. I think we’ll get there someday. I hope we get there. And I hope restaurants like Chipotle — and eaters — don’t give up.

Meanwhile, at least Chipotle’s commitment to sustainable agriculture remains. Its Food With Integrity page does still state its mission to source “vegetables grown in healthy soil, and pork from pigs allowed to freely root and roam outdoors or in deeply bedded farms.” We know that sometimes means no carnitas, but it’s worth it. Hopefully Chipotle will find a way to make local food work again too.

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