Meat of the Matter: Meat-free? No, free meat!

Who doesn't like scoring a tasty, meaty restaurant entree without paying? But you don't have to dine and dash, you just have to chow down on one restaurant's new vegan menu selection.

Here's the bad news: If you didn't visit your friendly neighborhood Chipotle restaurant on Monday, it's too late.

For free meat, that is.

As a special promotion for its new Sofritas, customers who tried the new menu item on Jan. 26 can redeem their receipt for a free entree on a return visit through Feb. 28.

What's a Sofritas, you ask? According to a news release from the Denver-based chain, it's an "organic, non-GMO tofu [burrito] braised with chipotle chilis, roasted poblanos and a blend of spices." Although the vegetarian item has been on the menu since 2013, Mark Crumpacker, Chipotle's chief marketing and development officer, told reporters that, "This promotion is designed to expose even more of our customers to Sofritas and hopefully give them one more reason to love Chipotle."

For those who haven't sampled the restaurant's fare, or were unaware of the company's impact on the quick-service industry, Chipotle and its founder and current CEO Steve Ells have staked out foodservice turf just this side of HSUS, with a marketing manifesto that underscores its "food with integrity" slogan by noting that

  • We support and sustain family farmers who respect the land and the animals in their care.
  • Whenever possible we use meat from animals raised without the use of antibiotics or added hormones.
  • We source organic and local produce when practical.
  • We use dairy from cows raised without the use of synthetic hormones.

I'll give Ells and his marketing team credit: You couldn't craft a more legally sufficient statement that doesn't actually commit the company to anything at all if you hired half of the firms on K Street.

Dissecting the message

"We support for family farmers" is one of the cheapest throwaway lines of all time. By what measure? And under what definition? Although the chain trumpets the use of non-GMO soy in its Sofritas which by the way is Spanish for, "made-up marketing term to impress the hipster gringos" but is it all grown by family farmers? Along with all the spices and other ingredients? Doubtful, but it sure sounds righteous to proclaim that you support them.

Likewise, it isn't exactly edgy to source dairy products from dairies that don't use rbST (recombinant bovine somatotropin), As far back as five years ago, major marketers such as Wal-Mart and General Mills publicly backed away from endorsing the use of rbST due to perceived consumer backlash.

It's kind of like saying, "We don't add artificial flavors to our natural [fill in the blank] food products." Yeah, because there are plenty of non-artificial alternatives that work just as well and don't impact the price point.

And as for disclaimers about "whenever possible," I would like to announce that wherever possible, I will provide timely, accurate information in every column I write.

When practical.

Look, Chipotle has done an outstanding job with its positioning statements. In just over 20 years, the company has expanded to more than 1,500 stores, and the ambiance, service model and menu choices are well beyond the dining experience at most fast-food restaurants.

But not only is the company marching forward with some awfully flimsy promises about its (alleged) sourcing of food with integrity, but the casual way that its marketing materials condemns genetic engineering, conventional farming and modern livestock production amounts to trading on consumer ignorance, compounded by egregious bandwagoning on issues peripheral to real-world efforts to foster sustainability in food production.

I'll eat at Chipotle on occasion. Their restaurants offer highly edible fare at reasonable prices, and their braised carnitas burritos are outstanding.

But the company's hardcore condemnation of antibiotics, hormones, confinement production and conventional production is borderline deceitful. As has been stated in the space about a million times, we benefit from we need alternative agriculture in the form of heritage breed, heirloom crops, specialty producers of all stripes and persuasions. There's simply no other viable way to maintain millions of acres of farmland in proximity to urban areas unless small-scale producers and growers can capture a premium for their products.

But alternative agriculture should exist in parallel to the so-called "industrial" systems from which we derive the vast majority of animal foods, grains, produce and practically everything else produced on farm.

When companies such as Chipotle deliberately foster the myth that organic, non-GMO, family-farm-produced food ingredients are a bona fide substitute for the food supply we take for granted at the supermarket or the drive-thru, we've got a big problem.

One that, unfortunately, takes a lot more effort to communicate to the public than simply making up a non-existent addition to the Spanish language.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.