By now I’m sure you’ve seen, heard and read about Chipotle’s decision to stop serving pork carnitas at one-third of its almost 1800 restaurants nationwide, due to a ‘supplier issue.’ While the burrito purveyor is keeping quiet on what exactly the ‘issue’ was, they do reference their strict requirements for suppliers dictating how animals must be housed, fed and cared for in order to meet their ‘responsibly raised’ standards (Sorry, Chipotle – I will not capitalize it as your branding indicates). While you will sometimes see ‘conventionally raised’ beef or chicken in the burrito assembly line (labeled, of course), Chipotle apparently believes the differences between conventionally and ‘responsibly’ raised pork are so stark, the substitution cannot be made.

Ignoring the glaring question of how a fast-casual Mexican chain somehow is trying to position itself as a leading authority on animal care and handling, another burning question jumped out at me following the controversy.

How much of a coincidence is it that the carnitas-gate scandal broke on January 13, a convenient two weeks before January 26. It just so happens that January 26 is “Sofritas Monday.” On that day, Chipotle will be promoting sofritas, their vegan protein option. If you order the braised tofu option as your protein, you will receive a coupon for a free burrito.

Maybe I’m a little cynical, but the timing is a little suspect…releasing a statement casting a negative light on modern meat production, which is sure to capture tons of media attention due to Chipotle’s popularity (and boy, has the story caught on), drawing tons of traffic to the Chipotle website (the leading headline of which announces the sofritas offer)….it certainly looks like a brilliant PR move. As a communications professional, I begrudgingly have to admire their moves.

By pulling one of its least popular protein options (according to the statement, less than 7% of entrée orders include carnitas) at only one-third of its restaurants, Chipotle has garnered an invaluable amount of press, nearly all of it praising their efforts. And now, they will be using that notoriety to promote a vegan alternative. That’s enough to make me a little nervous.

Could Chipotle be moving from a restaurant chain relying on dubious claims (ironic considering their ‘food with integrity’ party line) to stand out in a crowded marketplace to a food company actually promoting a vegan agenda? Admittedly, it’s quite a jump to make, but incentivizing customers to eat less meat is certainly a step in that direction.

In the mainstream media, pretty much the only criticism of Chipotle’s decision to pull carnitas points out that the ‘supplier issue’ demonstrates the fatal flaw of Chipotle’s ‘beliefs’ – raising meat this way is not scalable or sustainable. Setting aside the question of whether Chipotle’s guidelines are actually good for animals, if one burrito chain can’t meet its supply needs, how could a growing and hungry world be fed using these production methods?

What happens when Chipotle responds to these questions by suggesting a move to alternative protein sources? Like it or not, Chipotle has done a brilliant marketing job, but it’s important to recognize it as just that. If Chipotle decides to start pushing decreased meat consumption, maybe its other protein suppliers should take note – and ask Chipotle if its end goal is to become the largest chain of fast-casual Mexican salad bars. 

Editor’s Note: Hannah Thompson is the Communications Director at the Animal Agriculture Alliance, and we welcome her as a contributor to PorkNetwork. For more information on the Alliance, go to: www.animalagalliance.org