Chipotle gets it right, right?

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From the beginning, Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill has espoused a "Food with Integrity" theory, and has stuck to that in a lot of ways.

The chain serves more than 70 million pounds of meat annually, and all of its chicken and pork is naturally raised (fed strictly vegetarian diets, spared the antibiotics or artificial growth hormones, and given room to roam freely). Sixty percent of its beef is naturally raised. All dairy products are rBGH-free, and the company has even sponsored viewings of the revealing food documentary Food Inc.

A new article, however, details a lingering issue that the food chain has been unable to put to bed. Titled "One Company Thinks They've Created Fast Food With a Conscience — Are They Right?" Tara Lohan at AlterNet breaks down the good, the bad and the ugly of Chipotle and its issues with the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a worker protection group that contends its members work and live in virtual slavery. (Read more on the life of tomato pickers here).

Here's an excerpt from the letter CIW sent to Chipotle founder Steve Ells:

In the winter-tomato market, a small number of very large buyers dictate terms to the seven or eight entities that control land in tomato country; those growers, in turn, squeeze the workers in brutal fashion. Real wages have fallen dramatically in Immokalee over the decades and now hover well below poverty level; housing conditions would not be out of place in apartheid-era South Africa.

These are the normal conditions, experienced by thousands of workers in south Florida. No one can be surprised that in some extreme cases, right now, some of the people who pick our tomatoes are living in what can only be called modern-day slavery: held against their will and forced to harvest tomatoes without pay. In this context, Chipotle cannot claim the same integrity for the tomatoes it serves as it does for its meat, much less guarantee its customers that the tomatoes in its burritos were not picked by slaves.

The issue has been dogging Chipotle for years. The Rocky Mountain News wrote a piece in 2006 that stated 5 percent of the company's tomatoes come from Immokalee farms.

Progress has been made, however: In September ’09, Chipotle began to purchase tomatoes from the East Coast Growers and Packers, who subscribe to the CIW's "Fair Food" program. Still, Lohan writes, "critics [have] blasted Chipotle's go-it-alone approach as lacking transparency, and its unwillingness to work with actual farm workers through CIW."

When reached by the Indy on its Facebook page for comment on Lohan's story, a Chipotle spokesman responded:

We have been working for more than a decade to improve the nation's food supply by using ingredients from more sustainable sources, and we have accomplished more than any other restaurant company (naturally raised meat, local and organic produce, and dairy from cows that aren’t given added hormones to stimulate milk production).

But we have never claimed to be perfect. We have taken action on this issue, but this group seems to think there is only one way to solve a problem, and we don’t see it like that.

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