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Chipotle Refuses to Sign Popular Farm Worker Protection Agreement

| Monday April 2nd, 2012 | 4 Comments

With it’s decision to air a melodic, tear jerker of an ad showing the pitfalls of factory farming, and commitment to serving locally produced, humanely raised meat, Chipotle Mexican Grill has been getting a lot of positive buzz recently. But lurking in the background are a few issues that run counter to the company’s widespread claims that it’s serving “Food with Integrity.”

In addition to concerns about the high caloric content of its food that is marketed as fresh and healthy, Chipotle is now receiving criticism for its refusal to sign on to an agreement aimed at protecting farm workers on Florida farms where the company purchases tomatoes. The Campaign for Fair Food, which was started by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), has won the support of several major brands including Whole Foods, Taco Bell, Trader Joe’s and McDonalds. The campaign asks the major purchasers of Florida tomatoes to take a few seemingly straightforward actions that, according to the CIW, will go a long way toward improving working conditions and protecting workers at Florida’s tomato farms. These include:

  • Paying a penny more per pound for tomatoes, and asking farmers to pass that penny through to their workers.
  • Creating market incentives for suppliers that follow the CIW’s Code of Conduct which looks out for workers’ rights.
  • Providing 100 percent transparency about which Florida suppliers they are purchasing tomatoes from.

None of these terms strike me as particularly controversial in nature, so it surprising to hear that Chipotle, which claims to be committed to using ingredients that are “raised with respect for animals, the environment and farmers,” has been unwilling to follow the lead taken by other companies and sign on. As Mirra Fine of the Perennial Plate points out in her blog detailing the situation in Florida, “It is especially surprising that Chipotle, the one corporation whom you would assume would be at the forefront of workers’ rights issues, is distancing themselves.”

Apparently, the issue came up at the recent Edible Institute event, a gathering of the big names in the local food movement. During his panel, Chipotle’s Communications Director, Chris Arnold, was asked why the company hasn’t signed on with CIW. According to the CIW’s account of what happened (complete with Twitter coverage), the room burst into applause in response to the question but Arnold failed to really respond to it. Check out the CIW website for an overview of Chipotle’s arguments in defense of their decision not to sign on to the Campaign for Fair Food and the CIW’s responses.

It appears that this issue is starting to garner some attention so it will be interesting to see if Chipotle holds out or finally decides to support the CIW. To get a firsthand account of the experience of an Immokalee tomato field worker, watch the Perennial Plate’s short film below.

[Image credit: National Farm Worker Ministry, Flickr]

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Kara Scharwath is a corporate social responsibility professional, marketing consultant and Sustainable Management MBA Candidate. She is currently working as a Graduate Associate in Corporate Citizenship at the Walt Disney Company while pursuing her degree at Presidio Graduate School. Follow her on Twitter @karameredith.

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  • Kara Scharwath

    After posting this, Chipotle Communications Director Chris Arnold contacted me to let me know that  

        all of the tomatoes Chipotle has purchased from Florida growers since 2009 have come from growers who have signed on to the CIW program. He referenced these articles:

    http://www.gourmet.com/foodpolitics/2009/09/chipotle-tomatoes-labor-friendly-companies

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112804917I asked him if he could explain why Chipotle hasn’t signed on if the company is following the terms of the agreement anyway. Here is his response:

    “Chipotle has an unprecedented track record driving positive change in the nation’s food supply (we serve more naturally raised meat than any other restaurant company; are the only national restaurant company with significant commitments to local and organically grown produce; were the first to serve dairy products made exclusively with milk from cows that are never treated with the synthetic hormone rBGH, and an increasing amount made with milk from pasture raised dairy cattle), and we have done all of these things without having agreements with outside groups.

    In many ways, we share common ground with CIW in that we are both trying to drive positive change in the food system. Where we differ is in approach. CIW is focusing on a single issue, albeit a very important one (farmworker rights) and we are taking a more holistic approach, looking at every ingredient we use and how we can get it from better, more sustainable sources.”

    It sounds like Chipotle is in support of what CIW is doing even if they’ve made a strategic decision not to sign their agreement. 

    • Dane Z

      …it’s a shame you didn’t include this important dialogue with Chipotle “within” your article. Adding it on as a comment doesn’t fix the brand damage that you and Triple-P have done to a pretty good company. Honestly, this article doesn’t feel like journalism, it feels like internet ranting….or maybe just propaganda for the CIW.

      • Rob

        I think it’s a shame that Kara doesn’t include the criticisms and rebuttals that the CIW and their many allies have of Chipotle’s highly problematic and half-assed approach to addressing the decades of poverty and powerlessness experienced by FL’s farmworkers.  Chipotle’s approach eschews transparency, meaningful worker participations, and most of all a lasting commitment to the Fair Food Program.  Chipotle wants the public to trust them when it comes to issues of farmworker rights because they have a good track record when it comes to animal welfare, but the truth is they don’t and have never paid the same respect and attention to farmworkers as they do to farm animals.  The CIW long and hard work is what has managed to slowly but surely improve the wages and working conditions of FL’s farmworkers, and Chipotle’s approach is to try to ride on the coattails of the progress created by the CIW while still maintaining a loophole for themself through which it could drop out at any time and can’t be held to account if it is not in compliance with the Fair Food Program’s standards.

        Here’s one good article which details Chipotle’s shennanigans:
        http://www.grist.org/article/steve-ells-will-you-accept-the-chipotle-challenge

  • Reverance

    We are what we eat… if it involves slavery & unsustainable practices… I’ll take my money & mouth elsewhere 

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