The World of Fast Food Restaurants: Will Chipotle Really Save the Day?

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I finally got around to watching the first episode of “Farmed and Dangerous” recently.

For those not in the know, “Farmed and Dangerous” is a comedy series about the world of industrial farming. Available on Hulu, it was all funded by Chipotle. This isn’t Chipotle’s first venture into the world of media. Last year the Mexican fast food chain released “The Scarecrow,” a short animated viral piece that’s intended to get us hating on industrial farms and loving the family ones.

The video earned Chipotle both accolades and negative critique, mostly because the video visually had a lot of pro-vegetarian messaging. Meanwhile you can still buy a meat filled burrito at the chain. As Elizabeth Weiss put it in The New Yorker, “but when Chipotle runs out of sustainable beef, a decidedly less happy cow could end up marinated and grilled and nestled beside our cilantro-lime rice.”

Now Chipotle has stepped it up a notch, producing a four episode series, and “Farmed and Dangerous” is set up as a comedic drama. The gist of it is this: big agriculture versus the little guy. In other words, Chipotle giving industrial agriculture a bit of a slap in the face.

I am all for critiquing the agricultural and food industry – that critique is much needed – and Chipotle is certainly going out on a very shaky limb by producing a series like this. And yet, there’s my cynical side which let’s out a disappointed sigh and says “but, at the end of the day, Chipotle is still a fast food business.”

Clearly there’s a difference between a Taco Bell Waffle Taco (yes, it is a waffle and sausage patty rolled in a taco shape and stuffed with eggs) and a Chipotle burrito, in fact it’s hard to imagine even putting Taco Bell and Chipotle in the same category. But at the same time I can’t help but sense a twinge of greenwashing. We’re talking about fast food after all.

How is Chipotle different from other fast food restaurants?

Chipotle restaurants don’t have freezers, which means getting fresh deliveries of ingredients. That’s many steps beyond most fast food restaurants. The chain is committed to its mantra of “Food with Integrity,” which means sourcing sustainably raised food. In a world where people live by fast food, we need chains like Chipotle.

In fact, Chipotle is positioned to make some big changes. As reported inFast Company, “Chipotle is now the largest buyer of higher-priced pork, beef, and chicken from animals that have been naturally fed and humanely raised outside of the factory-farming system.”

But we can’t forget that Chipotle is still a big chain. Global in fact.

A friend of mine recounted a story of running into three English speaking women on a busy restaurant street in Paris. She kindly asked if they needed help and she listed off a few nearby gems. “Thanks… but we heard there was a Chipotle around here. Do you know where that is?” responded one of the women.

Chipotle. In Paris.

Granted it’s better than McDonald’s and Burger King. But still.

Let’s break this down simply:

Fast food restaurants are bad. Most of them serve overly processed food that’s sourced from God knows where. But people eat a lot of fast food. If we want to provide people with healthier food options, then part of that is providing healthier fast food options. Chipotle does that. But just because Chipotle is a smarter, more sustainable alternative to standard fast food chains, that shouldn’t keep us from calling it what it is: a fast food restaurant serving fast food. After all, in terms of nutritional numbers, a burrito at Chipotle is right up there with a Big Mac, maybe even a little worse than the burger with a bad name. Fast food is fast food, no matter what bucolic images you serve up with it.

Would the world be better with more Chipotle and less Burger King? Hell yes. Let’s hope that Chipotle really is a force of good. Our food industry could do with a bit of change. But at the same time, don’t go blindly consuming either, always remember to ask what you’re eating and where it came from. Because fast food is still fast food, and the likelihood that you are sitting down and taking the time to enjoy a full meal at Chipotle like you would a meal at home is quite small.

We live in a world of fast food restaurants and changing that world isn’t just about asking what those restaurants are serving. It also involves us thinking about our eating habits in general. And that requires less fast food overall.

Originally posted on EcoSalon

Image: Michael Saechang

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