Way to pull on our heartstrings, Chipotle. We know we should all be making better food choices, but now we're feeling an overwhelming amount of sadness and guilt after watching this new short film.
Today, the burrito chain has announced a new mobile game, titled The Scarecrow, for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. The game aims to educate and engage the public about food issues. The above film, which coincides with the game's launch, features Fiona Apple singing "Pure Imagination," originally from "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."
This haunting ad builds upon Chipotle's first ad, featuring Willie Nelson singing Coldplay's "The Scientist," which had a similar anti-industrial food theme. While the Willie Nelson ad isn't exactly uplifting, we didn't experience sudden onset depression like we did when watching "The Scarecrow."
The eerie music, combined with the scenes of a somber factory (100% beef-ish!) produces a heavy-handed but effective result. The scarecrow grows increasingly sad as he sees chickens getting stuck with needles so they grow faster, and cows unable to move from their pens.
But then, after leaving the factory, he finds a fresh red pepper, growing in a bleak spot of land where no other fresh food is found. He's inspired to start cooking. Suddenly everything is beautiful again! The ad ends with the slogan above his new fresh food stand, "Cultivate a better world."
We're going to go to the farmers' market now. Oh, and eat at Chipotle, too.
Earlier this month, the Mexican-food chain Chipotle released an animated short called “The Scarecrow.” The film opens on an overall-clad scarecrow with a burlap face and shiny black eyes who approaches a smoke-spewing building: Crow Foods Incorporated. Fiona Apple’s mournful, menacing cover of “Pure Imagination” plays in the background while the Scarecrow goes about his workday. He watches as a tube extrudes a substance that’s later labeled “100% Beef-ish”; a robotic crow injects a chicken with a green fluid that makes it expand like a balloon; and a cow with haunted eyes trembles inside a tight metal box.
At the end of the day, the Scarecrow returns home to his little farm, with its white fence and red barn. He seems beaten down by what he’s seen, but when he picks a familiar red pepper, the lighting brightens and the music becomes happier: the Scarecrow has an idea. He harvests vegetables and travels to the city, where he opens a burrito stand. “Cultivate a Better World,” instructs the banner that unfurls above his little operation. The message is something like this: Chipotle is not only tasty, it’s virtuous.
“The Scarecrow” has been praised as an innovative piece of marketing and beautiful work of art, and applauded for its anti-factory-farming message. As of Monday afternoon, it had been viewed nearly 6.3 million times on YouTube. But not everyone is impressed. Funny or Die released a parody last week called “Honest Scarecrow,” which casts the video as all sanctimony and no substance. In this version, which pairs the original animation with new lyrics (“Pure Imagination” gives way to “Pure Manipulation”), we’re reminded that Chipotle is a “giant corporation,” tugging at our heartstrings with oppressed bovines not because of a genuine interest in sustainability or animal welfare but to make us buy burritos. Writing in Salon, David Sirota criticized the film for using vegetarian imagery to sell meat; the Scarecrow, on his farm, harvests sun-dappled peppers and corn, but the only animals we see are suffering in confinement at Crow Foods. Chipotle gets credit for our veggie-related good feelings, without having to depict what alternatives to factory-farmed meat actually look like. (“Indeed, no matter how it is farmed, meat is still energy intensive, it still poses serious health problems when consumed in American-level amounts, and it only gets to your plate by killing an animal,” Sirota writes.) And while the film’s message has won praise from some foodies and advocates for food reform, some agricultural producers have responded angrily, accusing Chipotle of peddling misleading representations of conventional agricultural methods: all farmers, they argue, care about their animals, and no one keeps a cow in a metal box or injects a chicken with green slime.
So does “The Scarecrow” initiate an important conversation about our food system? Showcase Chipotle’s genuine commitment to sustainability? Or is it a cynical attempt to turn consumer fears about certain agricultural methods into sales?
“We’ve never professed to being perfect,” Chris Arnold, Chipotle’s communications director, told me. “The commitment we’ve made is to constant improvement.”
“The Scarecrow” is set in a world “where the plant is run by robotic crows,” he pointed out, “so it’s clearly a fictitious portrayal.” He said the film is meant “to highlight issues like the overuse of antibiotics, harsh confinement of animals, the extent to which food is processed.”
Chipotle began using sustainably raised ingredients about twelve years ago, Arnold said, starting with pork from Niman Ranch, whose hogs are raised without antibiotics, on open pasture or in roomy enclosures layered with hay or other bedding. (According to Paul Willis, Niman Ranch’s founding pork farmer and manager of its pork business, the company’s farmers are audited by Global Animal Partnership, a third-party certifier, to make sure they meet strict animal-welfare standards.) Today, Chipotle buys all of its pork from Niman or similar suppliers.
Chipotle uses only antibiotic-free chicken raised in chicken houses where each bird gets more space than in a conventional operation, Arnold said; some suppliers give their chickens access to the outdoors, and some don’t. Chipotle also tries to avoid cattle raised with antibiotics or growth hormones, though only about eighty per cent of its beef meets that standard. “Right now the supply just isn’t there for one hundred per cent,” Arnold said. Chipotle buys the rest of its beef from conventional suppliers, and whenever a Chipotle restaurant uses conventional meat, it notifies customers. The company is contemplating a stricter standard requiring that cattle be grass-fed, but today, it accepts beef that has been “feedlot-finished”—that is, brought in from pasture and fed grain before slaughter. (Chris Anderson, the marketing director of Meyer Natural Foods, which sells its Meyer Natural Angus beef to Chipotle, told me the company uses feedlots that are “very different from the larger commodity-type operations,” with fewer cows in each pen.)
It would be nice, of course, if some entity other than Chipotle itself—an independent auditor, for example—could confirm all this. The United States doesn’t have comprehensive, consistent regulations regarding the use of terms like “natural” and “humane.” That makes it tough for people to evaluate any company’s claims about agricultural practices. It’s even more difficult with restaurant chains like Chipotle, which sources ingredients from thousands of farmers.
I asked Arnold why Chipotle hadn’t signed on to a third-party protocol to help consumers understand how exactly its meat is raised. “‘Naturally raised’ can mean different things to different people,” he told me. “Because we operate in that kind of a gray area, we’ve always defined what we mean by that.”
Of course, because Chipotle defines its own standards, its customers have to trust Chipotle to self-police. Arnold told me Chipotle audits its meat suppliers on a regular basis, and relies on distributors like Niman and Meyer to maintain standards in their own networks. Suppliers sign affidavits swearing that they adhere to Chipotle’s standards. Arnold told me that, within the past eighteen months, the company had stopped working with suppliers who were falling short.
“I’ve interviewed many people that work there and talked to people they’re buying from,” Michael Pollan, the food writer, told me. “I’m generally encouraged.”
For Pollan, the fact that Chipotle has, in the past few years, started promoting its longstanding policies is “a sign of how the national conversation around food has changed.” “People are interested in this information,” he told me. “And evidently will make decisions based on this information.”
Other large food-industry players have also started to respond to consumer demand for more sustainable and ethical ingredients, if in incremental ways. Last October, the Times reported that food companies including “Dunkin’ Donuts, ConAgra Foods and Brinker International, which operates Chili’s,” had pledged to stop getting pork from suppliers who keep sows in gestation crates—pens that dramatically restrict their movement during pregnancy—within ten years; last spring, the Humane Society praised Burger King for its commitments to stop buying such pork and to buy only cage-free eggs within five years. Panera’s chicken and some of its pork and turkey are free of antibiotics, according to Michael Simon, Panera’s chief marketing officer.
One challenge in getting food from farms with sustainable agricultural practices is that there aren’t enough of them. Despite the rising interest, the vast majority of U.S. meat is still conventionally raised. McDonald’s uses about a billion pounds of beef every year. Even if it wanted to adopt Chipotle’s sourcing standards, the market couldn’t begin to meet its demand.
Chipotle’s attempt to source ingredients that avoid harmful practices seems more sincere than “Honest Scarecrow” gives it credit for, and Chipotle offers much more transparency about its meat’s origins than most fast-food restaurants. Still, Chipotle falls short of the film’s ideals. We can see the Scarecrow’s farm for ourselves, but we have to trust Chipotle’s assertions that its suppliers meet its standards. The Scarecrow uses only ingredients that conform to his values, but when Chipotle runs out of sustainable beef, a decidedly less happy cow could end up marinated and grilled and nestled beside our cilantro-lime rice. And Sirota’s criticism stands: “The Scarecrow” is powerful in part because it elides Chipotle’s real-life meat sourcing with the aesthetics of a vegetable harvest.
The Scarecrow, with those trembling, obsidian eyes, seems like a sensitive soul; if he showed up in our world with a craving for an inexpensive burrito, I think he’d appreciate Chipotle’s efforts. But after all he’s seen, I wouldn’t be surprised if he stuck with beans.