Chipotle opens door to beef treated with antibiotics

As cattle herds continue to decline and food prices tick up, the restaurant chain is finding that sticking to its ideals is tough.

By Jonathan Berr Aug 14, 2013 4:51PM
Credit: © GUS RUELAS/Newscom/RTR
Caption: File photo of Chipotle Mexican Grill in Beverly Hills, Calif.Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG), the chain famous for its freshly made burritos and tacos, says it may be open to buying beef that came from cattle treated with antibiotics.

The company, which prides itself on working with producers that treat animals with "dignity and respect," clarified that it's specifically leaning toward beef from cattle treated with drugs for illnesses. It still won't buy meat produced from cows treated with antibiotics to promote weight gain or prevent disease.

As Bloomberg News noted, the company's strict ideals are facing tough economic realities. For one thing, beef production is projected to hit a 21-year low next year, and as a result Chipotle is having trouble finding sufficient supplies of naturally produced beef. If Chipotle bought beef from cattle treated for sickness with antibiotics, its available supplies will increase.

"Many experts, including some of our ranchers, believe that animals should be allowed to be treated if they are ill and remain in the herd," said Steve Ells, Chipotle founder and co-CEO, in a press release. "We are certainly willing to consider this change, but we are continuing to evaluate what’s best for our customers, our suppliers and the animals.”

Idealism has paid off for Chipotle. Its shares have soared nearly 700% since 2006. Sales have more than doubled in the four years ended in 2012. The company recently reported better-than-expected quarterly results and gave bullish earnings guidance for the rest of the year.

The use of antibiotics in livestock is widespread. One published report estimated that 70% of all antibiotics produced are consumed by cattle, even though experts have warned about the growth in drug-resistant infections. The FDA has also begun taking a tougher line on antibiotic use in cattle.

"Last year, the agency said farmers must have a prescription to get antibiotics for their livestock and the drugs can only be given when medically necessary,"  Bloomberg says.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association said it had no comment on Chipotle's potential policy change.

--Jonathan Berr does not own shares of the listed stocks. Follow him on Twitter @jdberr.

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Aug 15, 2013 2:45AM
How are antibiotics used for growth? Aren't those called hormones? And I'll tell you, as a cattle producer, almost every herd in my area vaccinates their cattle. It is a requirement to take them to the sale barn.
Aug 14, 2013 5:52PM
This is so stupid.  All the rancher has to say is that a cow had an eye infection and that's why they gave it antibiotics.

It's a real cop-out to take a stand and draw the line, and then make up excuses so you can cross that line.  Why continue to play these stupid games? Either you buy beef that has been injected with antibiotics or you don't.    Is John Kerry the CEO of Chipotle now - "Uh, I voted against the antibiotic beef before I voted for it."

Cows taste good, with or without penicillin. 
Aug 14, 2013 5:51PM
Free range animals are bad for the environment.  It takes way more acreage per head to raise an animal organically.  You also can't recycle the poop for fertilizer as easily.
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