Chipotle Mexican Grill's Cultivate Festival kicks off in the Bay Area this weekend. If you went by the festival's ubiquitous ads, you would think the multinational giant were poised to save the world.
The slogan is "Cultivating a Better World" and Chief Chef Nate Appleman brags in a promo video, "This is all about bringing everyone together to eat great food and think about making the world a better place."
Before you head over to Cultivate, you should know this: Animal rights activists are protesting against Chipotle.
The protests reflect our society's deepening concern for animals. In recent years, dozens of investigations exposing the brutality of animal agriculture have sparked calls to eliminate routine methods of extreme confinement.
Simultaneously, scientists have made breakthroughs in recognizing the sophisticated consciousness of animal minds, even the oft-maligned chicken. Food corporations have responded to public concerns by championing animal welfare. Chipotle CEO Steve Ells has promised to run his business "in a way that doesn't exploit animals." Other big players, such as McDonald's, have followed suit.
Over the past year, animal rights activists with the grass-roots animal rights network Direct Action Everywhere have begun to challenge those claims.
What started with one Bay Area protest in October, which I helped to organize, has spread to 41 cities in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., with activists from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Chicago to Philadelphia regularly protesting at Chipotle restaurants.
Our goal is to take seriously Chipotle's commitment "to always look closer, dig deeper," by asking how Chipotle (which has refused our requests for information) can keep Ells' promise while admitting to the use of factory farms and suppliers such as the decidedly unnatural sounding meat giant OSI Industries.
The problem runs even deeper than routine consumer fraud because throughout its award-winning marketing strategy, Chipotle cultivates the idea that killing can be humane.
This is not just factual, but moral fraud. If we are to be truly thoughtful about our food, as Chipotle urges, we must ask whether we can condemn the intensive confinement of animals but approve the violence of slaughtering them. If we are to take seriously the idea that animals have an interest in how they live their lives, we must also take seriously the idea that they have an interest in whether they live their lives.
The effect of Chipotle's marketing has not been to encourage animal welfare reforms, which are, in any case, overstated or nonexistent. It has been to recast the animal rights discussion from a debate over whether it is OK to kill and eat animals, to assurances that we can do so without moral qualms -- as long as we eat them at Chipotle or its ilk.
This is the true Chipotle Effect: not to revolutionize our food system and usher in an era in which animals are not exploited to make a burrito, but exploiting consumers' good intentions while profiting from violence.
This formula has rewarded Chipotle handsomely. The chain has grown by 1,000 percent in the past five years. Those good intentions, the concerns that will drive festivalgoers to Cultivate's animal welfare display this Saturday, may indeed compel consumers to look closer and dig deeper. As they do, they may conclude that animal welfare requires something more than purchasing a carnitas burrito at Chipotle. They may see that it's not food at all. It's violence.
Wayne Hsiung is a writer, lawyer and organizer for the grass-roots animal rights network Direct Action Everywhere. He lives in Oakland.