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The Fairest Fast Food of All

Last week, a little-reported bit of food news crossed my desk: Chipotle, that chain of Mexican fast-food restaurants founded here in the Bay Area by Steve Ells (former cook at the now defunct Stars) has gone on record as saying that it will serve some 52 million pounds of naturally raised meat in 2008, marking a 40% increase over last year. I’ve read enough Michael Pollan to be skeptical of the phrase, “naturally raised meat,” but figured it warranted a second look.

It’s true, in fact, that Chipotle is now the single largest consumer of naturally raised pork in the country, and that they source their pork from Niman Ranch’s network of 500 family farms scattered throughout the Midwest (Ells first read about Bill Niman’s in an issue of that food geek journal, Art of Eating). On Chipotle's website they even link to a video of farmer Paul Willis, who’s been with Niman Ranch since the get-go. Paul and I met years ago when I lived in Boston: we shared a (grass-fed) hot-dog for lunch, then went to a four course dinner at one of the city’s best restaurants, where Paul marveled at what the chef was doing with the meat that his family raised. Mind you, this was in the early days. Now Niman Ranch has become a household name—their meat is now sold at Costco, where a prime rib fetches a tidy $150.

Make no mistake, Chipotle is still a fast food chain, and yes, the burritos still have half of your daily caloric allowance. But the chain is making big steps towards realizing the founder’s mission of  “food with integrity.” They’re not all the way there, yet, but I’m optimistic—particularly when I hear Ells says that he is, “committed to making [good food] available and affordable so everyone can eat better.” I appreciate that he’s debunking the (commonly held) belief that good food is elitist. It also seems that he’s got a realist approach to eating in America—realizing that, whether we like it or not, fast food is part of the American diet. But what that fast food is—or could be—remains up for debate, and Chipotle is aiming to change the definition.