Ag-gag update: constitutional challenge

It’s been awhile since I wrote about Ag-gag laws and their impact. (If you aren’t familiar with what they are, start here.) They’re back in the news again, after Idaho recently passed Senate Bill 1337, which makes it a crime punishable by imprisonment to photograph or videotape abusive, unsanitary or unethical activity on a farm. It was signed into law by Idaho’s governor on February 28, and Idaho is now the seventh state to have an active Ag-gag law.

Thankfully, a coalition of groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and the Center for Food Safety, filed a federal lawsuit in mid-March challenging the bill’s constitutionality. In the coalition’s rationale for the lawsuit, they question journalists’ free speech and freedom of the press rights. They also highlight the fact that now, Idaho more severely punishes the person who exposes animal cruelty than the person who commits it.

These laws don’t protect animals or even human beings and public health. They protect industry. Which we obviously value in this country, the way we protect large corporations in every way imaginable. 

It’s also important to point out that no one is asking these companies to allow someone to set up cameras 24/7 to document what happens in a slaughterhouse. We know what happens in a slaughterhouse. Slaughter. And the adage is probably true on some level that if we watched what happens in a slaughterhouse every day, we might all be vegetarians. Transparency in food doesn’t mean we need to see every single second of an industry’s work – that’s just absurd. 

The big issue here is that whistleblower protection is necessary. The photos and videos that these laws try to exclude are ones that show the company overstepping its legal bounds, not to mention ethical ones. A worker should feel safe in coming forward with legal or ethical concerns and allowing a journalist to do his/her work in documenting such items. These bills make it difficult to even get the evidence to law enforcement to spark an investigation before the person would be arrested under the Ag-gag law. 

Other industries can learn to get along with whistleblower protections. Industries that take money from the government, such as healthcare facilities, all must value whistleblower protections. You can’t be retaliated against in any way for exposing fraud or ethical/legal concerns and you are protected by the full extent of the law. This exists to make sure government dollars, and by extension, tax payer dollars, are spent wisely. So why not industrial agriculture? With the amount of subsidies and tax benefits these corporations receive, their workers should receive the same whistleblower protections.

We should not have laws in this country that forbid our citizens from exposing corruption, fraud, cruelty and abuse. We can’t claim to be the greatest, most free society on earth if we don’t.      



losing our first chicken

I came home from work and a five mile run last night to find Mark in the backyard still in his work clothes, having just got home after a hellish commute of his own. His first words to me were “a hawk killed one of the chickens.”

I hauled my bags in the house and came back out to find Ensign Rickey, one of our Black Australorps, dropped in one of our raised beds, her neck broken and feathers everywhere. (Ensign Rickey’s name is a Star Trek reference – our affectionate name for a generic redshirt.) Ensign Rickey was our best layer – a champion, even through this brutal winter. We even joked that we should let her retire in style since she was so dependable and was largely responsible for us even having any eggnog at Christmas at all. She was always the first to pump her legs across our yard when we’d walk onto the porch and yell TREAT!

Even though we don’t really look at the chickens as pets like we do our cats who live with us inside, the chickens are part of our family and we protect their lives and care for them like we do our pets. They are valuable to us and we make their lives as carefree and chicken-y as possible.

But the side effect of a free life outside of a cage is that sometimes predators show up. We’d actually never seen a hawk in Carnegie before, until Mark opened the back gate to find one sitting on the chicken coop, with Ensign Rickey on the ground and the others terrified and squacking behind our compost piles. If we lived in the country and could really have the chickens free range outside of a fenced in yard, we’d lose some to other ground predators. I know this. Animals die just like humans do, and thankfully we don’t think Ensign Rickey suffered too much. Mark walked into the yard and startled the hawk before it could go after one of the other hens.

It was dusk by the time I got home in the first place, so we got out the boots and shovels and dug into the frozen ground as it was getting dark, to make a place for her. We even said the gralloch prayer over the spot, a prayer of thanks for life that gives sustenance to others, as Ensign Rickey gave us eggs faithfully for the almost 3 years that we had her.

It was a sad evening. When I first laid eyes on her body, I cried. My first thought was that I hope she didn’t suffer. But it made me think that even if she did, the rest of her life was carefree and full of delicious scratch treats, digging for bugs in soft earth, chattering with her flock and pooping wherever she darn well pleased, with a warm and comfortable roost for cold evenings. 

Allow me to step on a soapbox here. What about all the other chickens that we use for eggs in this country, housed in horrid conditions, smashed into cages with broken legs and clipped beaks, unable to move, wallowing in their own waste, sick and dying? Just so we can have cheap eggs? No one cries for those birds when they die, and most people prefer it that way – because to turn your face away from the suffering of those animals allows you to buy eggs for $1/dozen and not worry about it. And that’s what it is – suffering. If you don’t believe me, watch this.

Consider finding a farmer near you that sells eggs – many farm stands and farmers markets sell them. Or consider your own backyard chickens. But think the next time you buy eggs about what we as a society are giving those birds for the gift of their eggs, a staple of many diets. Torturing another species in order to take something from them, giving nothing in return – not even compassion – isn’t right. Think about where you are sourcing your animal products. Not all eggs are the same. Ensign Rickey’s sure weren’t. 

online petitions – effective tool or just armchair activism?

In the age of social media, online petitions were almost inevitable. What better way to marshal support for a cause than to use social media to push the agenda, in hopes that it go viral?

I’ve signed a few online petitions before, mostly related to food issues. But does that really accomplish anything, or is it just armchair activism – an easy way to assuage our uncomfortable feelings about whatever the injustice is that the petition aims to combat?

Petitions that are sponsored and/or backed by advocacy groups are more likely to have legs. That is, they are using a collection of signatures to advance their already existing lobbying efforts. These groups exist outside of social media and have at least some power to get issues in front of legislators. 

But what about the petitions that are just started by a random person with an issue? I’ve been emailed petitions to sign to save just about every animal species under the planet, to take every ingredient out of every processed food, to make dolls and toys for kids of all shapes and sizes. (Recently, a White House petition to deport Justin Bieber received enough responses that the White House will have to issue a response.) 

A lot of these issues are good causes that I support in theory. But a lot of them are slightly misguided. For instance, the petition to take artificial colors out of M&Ms so as to not expose children to those chemicals doesn’t make any sense to me, since children really shouldn’t be eating any M&Ms at all, or at least not enough to make a difference. It’s worse to be exposed to those chemicals through the processed foods kids eat at every meal. So why try to get companies to change already unhealthy products to still unhealthy products? 

Shouldn’t we be petitioning the FDA and USDA to help us get chemicals out of our food supply, as opposed to individual companies? Consumers can also choose to not purchase M&Ms if they aren’t happy about the ingredients. If you don’t like the ingredients in Subway’s bread, don’t eat at Subway and if you choose, let people know why you don’t. But most Americans can’t go completely off-grid and stop buying their basic food supplies at grocery stores. So shouldn’t we be petitioning the government to make our general food supply safe and not just asking for one specific product to remove a specific ingredient?

I think it makes people feel like they are involved in activism when they share petitions and stories on social media. And really, they are. It’s a good thing to spread information and raise awareness, and I take part in that myself on a regular basis. But before you sign online petitions and expect them to make a difference, really think about whether or not that petition has a likelihood of affecting change, or if there’s a better way to go about it. 

Asking Subway to change its bread isn’t going to do anything to reform our food system. Take the time you would spend on online petitions and contact your legislators or write a response when legislation or FDA/USDA rules are up for public comment. Spread those messages on social media. It’s awareness of the scope of the real issues in our food supply that will ultimately make a difference.

book review: Foodopoly by Wenonah Hauter

I added this book to my list of reads after I realized that the author is the executive director of Food & Water Watch, an advocacy organization I follow quite closely. I was expecting it to contain about the same types of information that I usually find in books about the food movement. Interesting and informative, but not much new.

Well, I was wrong. Foodopoly did have some familiar themes, but the level of research and explanation in this book blew me away. Hauter’s main argument is that while focusing on changing consumer behavior and “voting with your fork” is important and has its benefits, no large scale change will happen without complete reform of the faulty industrial, corporate-controlled agriculture system that we have now. 

What this book does really well is explain how we got to where we are, and what the factors are that contribute to it staying this way (and getting worse). I expected a book with such an extensive and thorough notes section to be dry, and while it did take me longer to read than some other food books, it’s because there was so much information to absorb. 

Reading Foodopoly really hammered home for me how much of a privilege it is to be able to buy food from local farmers, living in an urban area where many farmers are able to make a living by providing food direct to consumer. I was reminded that many small and mid-size farms across the country do not have direct-to-consumer sales as an option, and are forced to grow commodity crops where they are paid less than the cost to produce and to work within monopolistic corporate systems. 

This book covers antitrust laws through this country’s history and the impact that deregulation has had on food and farming in America. Though I knew that many organic producers have been taken over by giant food conglomerates and that only a handful of corporations control all sectors of our food chain, reading Hauter’s logical explanations of what happens behind the scenes makes you realize that this country has allowed business to be the watchdogs of our public health and welfare.  

Foodopoly also covers genetic tinkering – not just genetic engineering of plants and animals, but synthetic biology and the groups that are trying to use government money to actually create life for profit. Here as in other places in the book, compelling evidence and meticulous research support her arguments. 

The only thing I felt this book lacked was a “now what” at the end. I was waiting for a chapter on practical ways to support the kind of large scale political movement she describes, especially after the book fired me up so passionately about moving beyond just supporting our CSAs and avoiding processed foods, etc. I do have a goal to write to my legislators more often this year, and I’ll continue to try to read up on legislative and judicial instances where public comment is needed. If you’re looking for research and facts to back up the feeling that our system needs to be fixed and not just consumer behavior, Foodopoly is a fantastic place to start.

movie review: Blackfish

Every so often, a documentary gains some traction in the mainstream media and catches the public’s attention. Blackfish is the most recent film to do that, backed by CNN and released to a wider audience. The story of Tilikum, a male orca whale which has been in captivity since 1983 and has been responsible for the death of several trainers, the documentary questions the ramifications of keeping orcas in captivity, and particularly using them for shows at amusement parks such as Sea World.

I didn’t expect the film to really be one I would review for this site, but I wanted to watch it to see what all the hype was about. It was definitely worth my time, and for reasons beyond just the specific plight of the orcas.

Blackfish begins by explaining the circumstances that led to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) suing Sea World, claiming that training orca/killer whales in such close proximity is inherently dangerous. The suit was brought after the violent death of a trainer at Sea World Orlando, after Tilikum attacked her. It then goes on to explain the history of this particular whale, from it being taken as a baby away from its pod in the wild to its current place at Sea World.

His history is a sad one, full of seclusion and isolation. Orcas being highly social creatures, to be ripped away from his mother as a young calf and put with other whales not part of his pod, is difficult enough. Add on top of that years of being penned in small concrete tanks when you are used to swimming freely in the ocean, punished by having your food withheld when you didn’t cooperate and do behaviors on cue. 

Many critics of this film have talked about how zoos and wildlife in captivity are exploiting animals for profit. That’s an entirely different argument and probably one worth thinking about. (Though this film does make clear a distinction between amusement parks and zoos, from the quality of their care to their purpose for existence.)

But more than anything, this film made me think about how we look at animals and their treatment in general. Much has been made of artists canceling performances at Sea World parks and people boycotting the parks in general, in protest of the way orcas are treated. But no matter how many videos are shown of the horrific treatment of animals in factory farms, people continue to purchase and consume animals who lived miserable lives full of suffering, in the farthest thing from their natural existence possible.

One particularly moving portion of the documentary details the first baby orca born in captivity at Sea World, and how she was removed from her mother to another park. When she was removed, the mother orca stayed in the spot where she was taken and shook, making agonizing vocalizations that experts say were meant to be long-range. She was calling out for her lost calf, which she would never see again. It seems awful, and it is. But this happens every time a calf is taken from its mother cow on factory farms, whether used for veal or sold off to another feedlot. There are documented cases of mother cows bellowing for their lost calves, standing in the spot they were last together, emotionally distraught. But we find this okay.

Perhaps it’s because orca whales are honestly beautiful creatures, majestic in size and beyond graceful as they glide through the water. We also give them names and think of them with personalities. I recall my sister and I riding on a rubber, blown-up Shamu whale in our tiny kiddy pool growing up. We certainly don’t glorify farm animals in such a way. Most people don’t look at a cow in pasture as beautiful, let alone seeing that same animal standing knee deep in waste on an industrial feedlot.

Perhaps it’s because it’s much easier to simply boycott Sea World than it is to stop eating factory farmed meat. After all, there are many great places in this country to amuse ourselves or to learn about wildlife in general. And it’s easier to bring out someone’s inner activist when the price isn’t very high and it doesn’t require us to leave our comfort zones.

If you have the opportunity, watch Blackfish. It will make you think critically, which is the hallmark of a good documentary. And the actual cinematography is beautiful. But when you watch it, consider if the orcas are so much different at the end of the day than cows, chickens and pigs and whether or not they deserve the same kind of consideration and respect as Shamu. 


GMO culture war – is there a middle ground?

Recently, a reporter from Grist, one of the country’s premiere environmental magazines, finished a sixth month series on GMOs. He used the series to investigate the truth about GMOs outside of the two opposing narratives that are usually circulated. On one hand you have the pro-GMO people, who see GMOs are a feat of human ingenuity and technology/science that will save agriculture as we know it and go a long way to address starvation and hunger across the globe. On the other hand, the anti-GMO people, who see GMOs as a symptom of corporate control of our food system and the unsustainability of modern agriculture, not to mention a health risk.

His wrap-up piece, “What I learned from six months of GMO research: none of it matters” caused a huge stir, from both sides of the debate. He concluded that the cultural debate actually misses the mark. Since it talks about GMOs in a broad sense, it doesn’t allow for discussion of individual GMO plants or organisms. He argues there’s a difference between engineering rice to feed starving people and engineering corn to feed pigs in a nation that already eats too much meat. (I need to read the series to see how he feels about genetically engineered animals, like salmon.)

I haven’t read all of the pieces in the series (though I probably will start to go through them). And Civil Eats also addressed his piece on their site, with a compelling rebuttal. In particular, that essay addresses what agricultural priorities should be if we are trying to envision a sustainable future. And points out rightfully that the companies involved in GMO technology are also the ones that poisoned us with Agent Orange, etc. The writer acknowledges that the debate does obscure the technological innovations that do need to occur in order to move toward sustainability. 

For me, the GMO issue primarily comes down to the issue of transparency. If I believed that as a nation we could keep corporations accountable to make decisions in the public interest, it would be one thing. But we can’t, and we know that much of the scientific research being done about GMOs (all types) is controlled by parties with a financial interest. We need third party research that’s independent. That encourages human innovation and scientific development, but with an eye toward sustainability. That researches the health and environmental effects of these plants. And we need a system that errs on the side of caution, not risk, when it comes to public health. 

While I don’t agree with him entirely – I think we need to avoid adopting a flippant attitude about GMOs – Nathanael Johnson’s Grist piece is food for thought and encourages us to dig through the hype for what’s actually true when we talk about GMOs.

2 years fast food free

There was a time in my life where the song “McDonald’s Girl” could have been written about me. I worked there in high school and college, for a combined total of about 5 years, both as a regular crew member and a swing manager. I could write for days about my experiences there. It’s where I started drinking Diet Coke and eating cheese and bread. (Yeah, it’s honestly true. No wonder I was the size of a peanut in high school.) French fries were my absolute favorite food and McDonald’s had the best ones.  

That’s why it’s kind of bizarre that as of the end of January, I’ve been fast food free for 2 years and 4 months. I had my last fast food French fry when we visited Chicago for our first Star Trek convention in September 2011. I’m defining fast food as any of the following, and restaurants like them: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Long Johns, Subway and Arby’s. You get the drift. (I am going to use McDonald’s as my example in this post, since I have a great deal of knowledge about it, having worked there.)

A lot of people understand that in giving up junk food, you’d cut down on the amount of times you hit the drive thru. So that’s not surprising. But people are often surprised to know that I won’t eat fast food at all – salads and fruit, and even bottled water included. 

I’m not going to lie. I still smell McDonald’s when I go to a turnpike rest stop or some other food court and I am tempted to lean my head back and dump a large fry down my throat. The smell of the restaurant brings back a lot of memories for me. But I am able to resist the temptation because my reasons for NOT eating fast food are varied and truly important to me.

1. Health
It’s no secret that the majority of the food served at McDonald’s isn’t good for you. And while it’s possible to lose weight or not gain weight while eating a lot of McDonald’s (I ate A LOT of McDonald’s when I worked there.), weight isn’t the only indicator of health. Nutritionally, fast food has a lot of empty calories, and its menus contain huge amounts of additives and chemicals. It’s ironic that I started to like cheese and bread while working there, since the cheese is barely cheese and the bread is barely bread. Practically everything is processed in one way or another and it’s about the farthest away from “clean food” that you can get.

2. Sourcing of food
It’s not just what’s in fast food that I have an issue with. It’s where it comes from. The meats are all sourced from CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), as well as the eggs. Dairy is likely from cows that have been given rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) and antibiotics are probably everywhere. I don’t eat meat in general that has been raised like that, and I don’t want the dairy or the eggs either.

It’s worth noting that just recently McDonald’s announced that it would “commit to sourcing sustainable beef” in 2016. But considering its track record and the fact that no real definition exists of “sustainable beef,” it feels like more of a marketing/PR stunt than anything.

3. Environment
McDonald’s generates a lot of waste. It also contributes to monocultures that harm farmland because it insists on vegetables that will taste exactly the same across its global empire. (The russett burbank potato for its fries is a big issue.) Their produce is not farmed sustainably or organically, and so you’ve got the issue of pesticides as well. Mass meat production is not good for the environment either – CAFOs and meat processing plants are huge polluters.

4. Workers
There have been a lot of protests across the country about raising the wage of fast food workers and lobbying for better employee benefits and treatment. I was drastically underpaid for the work I was responsible for when I worked at McDonald’s and I often worked in very unsafe conditions. No one at our store, even the store manager, was eligible for benefits of any kind, not even paid vacation. I was given two dirty shirts and a name tag when I started, and we didn’t get even one free meal during our shifts, just a small discount. (We were a franchise, so the owner wasn’t required to provide any of that for us, like they might to a degree at a corporate store.) Without wading into the debate about what actually constitutes a living wage, fast food workers deserve more than they get, especially when the C-suite leaders at the top are swimming on gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, on the backs of the people making minimum wage.

It’s also worth noting that industrial farmworkers are also abused and suffer from pesticide exposure and wage fraud on a huge scale – and these are the companies where fast food companies source their food.     

5. Advertising to kids
It’s true that most 6 year olds don’t get to McDonald’s on their own. They are presumably taken by adults, who are the ones making the choices about what their kids eat. But the insidious marketing by McDonald’s to very young children – ones unable to discern what advertising actually is – is unacceptable. I personally would see the same kids every single day for multiple meals at McDonald’s, with parents who didn’t just use it as an occasional treat, but as routine meals for their kids. The kids were hyped up on it and wanted the toys that came with their meals. And it made me sad that these kids were being set up to crave this food, even though anyone knows that double cheeseburgers aren’t the greatest nourishment for growing bodies. And chicken nuggets that are barely chicken aren’t either.

6. Shady charity activities
McDonald’s is known for its signature charity, the Ronald McDonald House. Which, let’s state for the record, is an awesome charity, providing housing and support for families with sick children across the country. There’s no denying that. But there is a lot of evidence that McDonald’s uses the Ronald McDonald House as a marketing/PR tool, without giving a lot of financial support (sometimes only about 10% of a local chapter’s necessary support). For more about this, read Michele Simon’s report here, on Eat Drink Politics

Some of these issues are specific to McDonald’s, but most of them apply to all fast food. And that’s why I turned my back on fast food more than two years ago. Even though it’s cheap and convenient, I choose to go without. 


Proposed FDA rules – speak up to support local farms!

In support of the Food Safety Modernization Act, the FDA is creating new rules which threaten small farms, sustainable and organic agriculture and farm conservation efforts and the environment. According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), the new rules as currently written will “put many farms out of business, reduce the supply of fresh, local produce in schools and hospitals, push farmers to tear out wildlife habitat, and increase the use of chemicals rather than natural fertilizers.”

A comment period is open until November 15, and it’s important that we speak out to support the farms that supply the food we enjoy so much and that make this area of the country so agriculturally vibrant. (Despite the government shutdown, comments are still accepted on the FDA website.)
Using a template provided by the NSAC, I wrote my own customized comment to submit. You can find more information on the proposed rules, as well as instructions for how to submit your comment on this special website

Feel free to copy my comment that appears below or write your own – but either way, speak up. Every voice matters – and if you’ve enjoyed a CSA this season, part of that “community support” is to stand beside farmers and to do what’s right for them and our community and environment.

Follow NSAC on Twitter at @sustainableag for the latest updates – spread the word! 

Re: Preventive Controls Rule: FDA-2011-N-0920, Produce Standards Rule: FDA-2011-N-0921

I am a concerned consumer, parent, entrepreneur, etc. writing because I am concerned about the impact that FDA’s proposed FSMA rules will have on the farms where I source my food, as well as the environment and my local economy. I ask you to ensure that new regulations do not put family farms out of business, harm farmers’ soil, water, and wildlife conservation efforts, or shut down the growth of local and regional healthy food systems!

My family subscribes to community supported agriculture programs from local farms, which enables us to have access to the freshest, healthiest produce, grown without practices that harm farm workers or the environment. These small businesses are not just an asset to our local economy, but an asset to the health and well being of our community members. Many local farms donate produce to needy families or offer reduced price shares and give back to the community that supports them in many ways. They also allow us to purchase healthy food without the extra markup from conventional stores, adding an economic benefit – the money stays entirely in our community instead of benefiting out of state or out of country corporations. These farms are in indispensable part of our region and my own life. 

I urge you to modify the rules so that they:
•    Allow farmers to use sustainable farming practices, including those already allowed and encouraged by existing federal organic standards and conservation programs. Specifically, FDA must not exceed the strict standards for the use of manure and compost used in certified organic production and regulated by the National Organic Program.

•    Ensure that diversified and innovative farms, particularly those pioneering models for increased access to healthy, local foods, continue to grow and thrive without being stifled. Specifically, FDA needs to clarify two key definitions: first, as Congress required, FDA must affirm that farmers markets, CSAs, roadside stands, and other direct-to-consumer vendors fall under the definition of a “retail food establishment” and are therefore not facilities subject to additional regulation. Second, FDA should adopt at least the $1,000,000 threshold for a very small business and base it on the value of ‘regulated product,’ not ‘all food,’ to ensure smaller farms and businesses (like food hubs) fall under the scale-appropriate requirements and aren’t subject to high cost, industrial-scale regulation.

•    Provide options that treat family farms fairly, with due process and without excessive costs. Specifically, FDA must clearly define the “material conditions” that lead to a withdrawal of a farmer’s protected status in scientifically measurable terms. FDA must also outline a clear, fair, process for justifying the withdrawal of a farmer’s protected status and for how a farmer can regain that status.

reading this week

I’m still processing all that I learned and saw at the Mother Earth News Fair, but look for recaps on that soon. In the meantime, here’s what I’ve been reading this week.

The USDA recently changed the process of exempting prohibited substances in foods labeled as organic, without having any public comment period. Previously, prohibited substances were given five year periods in which they could be exempted, while alternatives could be found. After that period, they’d expire unless a two-thirds majority of the National Organic Standards Board allowed it, AFTER a public comment period. 

Now, all of that has been erased and these substances can be allowed indefinitely, and with no public comment period, outside of the public view. Not only does it weaken the already relatively weak organic standards, but it pulls more of our food processes behind closed door and decreases transparency.  

CDC’s thoroughly convincing report on the threat of antibiotic resistance (Food Politics)
A great infographic on how antibiotic resistance is created, plus links to other stories explaining the issue.

A Washington state farmer’s alfalfa crop has been found to contain a GMO trait, which has stopped him from being able to export it (as European nations have much more strict laws regulating GMOs than the U.S.). How this plays out will be interesting, though I’d venture to guess the government will not go out of its way to protect the farmer.

Factory Food From Above: Satellite Images of Industrial Farms (Wired)
Enhanced images from satellites of the feedlots that house industrial meat production

Food banks are a ‘slow death of the soul’ (The Guardian)
A really interesting take on food pantries from someone who runs one. What he does? It’s my dream job. I was asked once in a job interview what my dream would be, and I said if I had capital, I’d open a food pantry that was a community garden and had cooking and gardening classes. To help people get on their feet and empower them to make good choices.

10 Reasons for Gardeners to Love Chickens (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Self-explanatory. :)

Chipotle’s imagination – how pure is it?

You might have seen this haunting and beautiful new viral commercial from Chipotle (complete with a Fiona Apple cover of ‘Pure Imagination’). If not, check it out below.

The first time I saw it, I thought, YES! Beautiful animation, great music, down with Big Food! Hooray! 

And then I saw this response from Funny or Die.

So which one is right? Should we see Chipotle as a corporation trying to educate the public and make a real change in how industrial food is sourced and produced? Or are they trying to manipulate us into purchasing their “better” burritos?

I’d say both. 

When it comes to sourcing ingredients, Chipotle does set itself apart from virtually all other quick-service restaurant chains (with the possible exception of Moe’s, which sources their meat with more discretion than say, McDonald’s). They use the tag “food with integrity.” Most of their meats are produced without giving the animals added hormones or sub-therapeutic antibiotics. They claim to source their produce locally and organically “when practical” and use dairy products from cows raised without added hormones. 

The fact that this information is even available on their website sets them apart from other restaurants, who make claims about the “quality” of their food and its “freshness” but not about where it came from. No matter what, Chipotle deserves credit for even acknowledging that it matters where your food comes from and in the case of meat and dairy, how the animal was raised. I don’t see Ronald McDonald giving kids lectures on the CAFO feedlots where Mayor McCheese sources his beef.


Chipotle is still a huge corporation. In 2012, they made $2.7 BILLION in sales revenue. They have corporate interests, with shareholders to please. And they spend an enormous amount of money on marketing, including this commercial and its accompanying games. This commercial was designed with the intent to (as the Funny or Die parody points out) tug at your heart strings and make you feel something. Yes, it is telling you that industrial agriculture is fundamentally not “right.” But it’s also telling you to buy Chipotle burritos. Don’t make the burrito at home with whole, clean foods. Buy Chipotle and let them do the worrying about where the food comes from. You can TRUST them.

The last time I was in a Chipotle, there was a sign saying the beef was conventionally raised. While I respect that they bothered to even inform people of that, it’s true that they would rather purchase and serve conventional beef than say “we’re out of beef today, please choose pork, vegetables or chicken.” To me that says that profit (and the satisfaction of customers who want their beef, no matter what) comes first.

Let’s not forget that Chipotle also admits that GMOs are present in most of their menu items (save for salad fixings and the pork carnitas). While they have labeled the items and claim to be working toward eliminating them, they still are reliant on GMO soy and corn, including the soybean oil used to cook their rice (which is also why the rice is so high-cal). So while they are taking steps toward moving beyond some industrial agriculture practices, they are fully entrenched in others. 

Does this mean you should stop eating at Chipotle? Not necessarily. I don’t lump them in the same category as McDonald’s, since of quick-service restaurants they have shown the most transparency with their ingredients and a willingness to respond to increasing consumer demand for more sustainable, humanely raised food. But you should know what you’re eating – and when you see something like the Scarecrow, recognize it for what it is – beautiful, haunting marketing – and let it inspire you to make your own burrito.