Integrity: The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness

When I was in elementary school there was a kid in my class well ahead of his years in the obesity epidemic of our country, naturally making him an easy target during games of tag on the playground. It didn’t take long for him to tattle to the recess monitor, leading to the class being scolded and being told not to tag him anymore. We did what any well-behaved 9-year-olds would do and ignored him, resulting in another scolding for not including him in our games. Before you feel sorry for this little kid, you should know he took great joy in ramming fellow classmates over with his pop belly and calling everyone names without a bat of an eye from our recess monitor – to this day, hearing “Laura-Bora” sends violent chills up my back. And while it may seem silly to hold a childhood grudge for some 15-16 years, I still get annoyed at the memory of turning my green card to yellow after he cried when I told him he looked like a dork with his hat on backwards. (For the record, I still stand by this.)  

In the food production industry, we have our own whiny kid on the playground – you guessed it: Chipotle. As readers of ag publications, you are already well aware of the long history of controversy surrounding the burrito empire to the point of its name becoming cringe worthy over the years. Its “Food with Integrity” campaign has been ruthless in standing on the back of modern conventional agriculture to wave its holier-than-thou flag in consumer faces.

I’ll hand it to Chipotle for leading a cutthroat crusade against GM technology, antibiotic use in livestock and large scale farming – making the majority of production agriculture look like a bunch of heartless monsters who will do anything for a buck. From the scarecrow ad campaign and Farmed and Dangerous mini-series to shipping grass-fed beef halfway around the world for “sustainability purposes,” they’ve managed to cause quite the stir over their burritos the size of a small child.

But recently, Chipotle has found themselves in a bit of a pickle. Apparently, while they were gallivanting around tooting their horn about ingredient selection, they forgot one minor detail – food safety. As of Friday, Dec. 4, 52 people in nine states have fallen ill from E. coli picked up in food consumed from Chipotle Mexican Grill, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report. It’s no laughing matter with 20 of them ending up hospitalized and thankfully all of them surviving. And as of late afternoon on Dec. 9, 120 Boston College students were stricken with norovirus after eating at the same Chipotle restaurant over the weekend.

When the first E.coli outbreaks started at the first of November, Chipotle voluntarily closed down 43 restaurants in the Portland and Seattle areas to address the situation, quickly returning to business as usual – impressive for a company who walks a flirtatious line of insinuating conventionally raised ingredients are dangerous and unethical, but dish them out to customers during shortages of “Food with Integrity.”

Let’s be realistic – shit happens. Or in Chipotle’s case, E. coli. They aren’t the first to go through this battle and they won’t be the last. But it is moments like this that truly define the morals and principles of a company.

Since the first outbreaks, Chipotle Mexican Grill shares have reportedly fallen close to 30 percent. One can only imagine the hysteria that is taking place in their Denver headquarters, which may have leaked out during an investor conference on Dec. 8. In coverage by FORTUNE, Chief Financial Officer Jack Hartung took the high road by pinning their situation on the government and media – as in the CDC for doing its job and the media thinking handfuls of people dropping over ill and being hospitalized as newsworthy.

Hartung took issue with CDC reporting cases as they came in, instead of waiting for broader coverage. He then went on to take a jab at the media for creating hysteria.

“Because the media likes to write sensational headlines, we can probably see when somebody sneezes that they’re going to say, ‘Ah, it’s E. Coli from Chipotle’ for a little bit of time,” says Hartung in the FORTUNE article.

Pretty rich coming from a company who made a fictional mini-series about farmers feeding petroleum pellets to cows, causing them to explode – the same company tattoos their “Food with Integrity” slogan across their chains and campaigns, especially when the definition of “integrity” is: The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.

Chipotle had the chance to own up to its problems and gain the respect of investors and consumers, but instead chose to whine and throw a pity party like the fat kid who got tagged on the playground. But who is surprised? The agriculture community isn’t. Maybe the public will finally look past the hypocrisy and hold Chipotle to higher standards.