What is Naturally Raised Meat?

Reader Contribution by Staff

The chain of burrito restaurants known as Chipotle advertise heavily that the meat in their menu items is natural. I asked Chris Arnold over at Chipotle, what that means to them.

Q. Can you identify Chipotle’s specific sourcing standards. What does ‘naturally raised’ mean exactly?

A. Our greatest area of support for family farms comes in our purchase of naturally raised meat (meat coming from animals that are raised in a humane way, never given antibiotics or added hormones, and fed a pure vegetarian diet). We buy more meat that meets that definition than any restaurant in the world. It began in 2000 when we started purchasing pork from the farms of Niman Ranch. At the time, we operated about 50 restaurants, and Niman had about 50 family owned farms participating in their program. Today we have more than 640 restaurants and Niman has well over 500 family farms raising pigs the old fashioned way (on open pastures or in deeply bedded barns, without the use of antibiotics, hormones or drugs that behave like hormones, and on a pure vegetarian diet). Niman’s program has done a lot to reshape the landscape of rural America, mostly through the Midwest, and Chipotle is proud to support that.

Beyond pork, we buy naturally raised chicken (more than 70 percent of all of our chicken meets this standard) and naturally raised beef (about half of all that we buy), much of which also comes from family owned operations through co-ops like Coleman and Bell & Evans.

Q. How can Chipotle be sure the sourcing farms are keeping up their end of the bargain?

A. Certifying farms and ensuring that our suppliers are adhering to our protocols is indeed a very important issue. To do this, we work with the suppliers themselves (who oversee their networks of family farms) to be sure their protocols are consistent with ours, and we audit our suppliers (not just those who provide our naturally raised meat, but suppliers across the board) using a combination of our own internal auditors as well as third-party auditors. Even with a standard such as organic, there’s really no substitute to auditing to fully understand what is happening on the farms.

Generally speaking, the standard for our naturally raised meat is that the animals are humanely raised (as certified by third-party organizations like the Animal Welfare Institute or Farmed Friendly, for example), never given antibiotics or added hormones (or drugs that behave like hormones), and fed a vegetarian diet. There are some minor differences in how that protocol fits with pork, beef, and chicken.

Commodity pork farming, for example, often incorporates some of the more egregious standards including the use of gestation crates, and harsh confinement for the animals. All of the pigs that provide our pork are raised on open pastures or in deeply bedded barns; not in harsh confinement operations. They are fed a pure vegetarian diet, and never given antibiotics (unless they’re sick, though then the animal would be removed from our program). The use of hormones is banned in the pork industry, but many industrial pork producers uses other synthetic drugs that have the same growth impacts as hormones. We ban those substances as well under our protocol.

Beef cattle are always raised outdoors, so the confinement issue isn’t the same as it is with pork, so our definition needn’t address that issue specifically. For us, beef cattle must still be raised in a humane way (as certified by third-party entities), can never be given antibiotics or added hormones, and fed a pure vegetarian diet.

Chickens are slightly different still. Chickens must live in an environmentally controlled facility for a period of time, so they are not free-ranging like beef cattle or our pigs (when they’re raised according to our protocol, not in industrial facilities), and the use of hormones is not allowed for chickens. Our naturally raised protocol ensures that the birds are raised in a humane way (including more space per bird in the chicken houses), that they’re never given antibiotics (unless to treat illness, which would result in their being removed from our program), and fed a pure vegetarian diet.

That should help you understand the slight differences, but I think you should also be able to see the consistency within that program.

Q. Is the ‘100% vegetarian’ feed organic? And are the cattle grass-fed or are grain-fed? 

A. The animals are not fed organic feed under our protocol; cattle are grain-fed, not grass-fed. There’s remarkably little grass-fed beef in this country, and we already have a supply issue with our naturally raised beef; chicken, too.

Q. All the pork on Chipotle’s menu is naturally raised, but are there plans to offer only naturally raised chicken and beef, as well?

A. Our hope is to be serving all naturally raised meat (100% of everything) within the next couple of years. Supplies aren’t available today, but we’re already serving more naturally raised meat than any restaurant in the world.

At Mother Earth News, we think it’s important to ask companies direct questions about their products–especially when they like to toot their own environmentally friendly horns. And we encourage you to do the same. Have you learned anything helpful by asking companies questions about their publicized ‘greenness’? Are there any that have earned your trust because of sound environmental practices? What about those that haven’t met up to your expectations of sustainability? We’d like to hear about your experiences in the comments section below.