Alamy Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) has been championing the “food with integrity” mantra for years, and now more of its peers are catching on. Chick-fil-A and Subway are the latest quick-service restaurants preparing to tweak their offerings to remove unnatural or controversial ingredients.
Chick-fil-A is moving to only purchasing chickens that haven’t been treated with antibiotics. Farmers use antibiotics to treat disease or to stimulate growth, but there are fears that the wholesale use of antibiotics in the nation’s food supply will increase our resistance to antibiotics when we actually need it — when we’re sick.
Subway is removing azodicarbonamide — a chemical that’s also found in shoe soles and yoga mats — as a dough conditioner. The practice was called into question by FoodBabe.com blogger Vani Hari, tying Subway to the elasticity-fortifying chemical. Yes, this is the same blogger who convinced Chick-fil-A to improve its menu last year.
Subway will act on eliminating azodicarbonamide right away, but Chick-fil-A is giving itself five years to deal with its antibiotics problem to give its suppliers time to comply. The moves are still significant. With 1,700 locations, Chick-fil-A is the country’s second-largest chicken chain after KFC, a unit of Yum (YUM). Subway is the global fast-food leader, with 41,270 sandwich shops across 104 different countries.
Even Chipotle Isn’t Perfect
Chipotle strives to work with family farmers who respect the land and treat their animals humanely. It also refuses to use dairy products from cows raised on synthetic hormones. However, Chipotle concedes that it doesn’t always live up to its expectations.
“Whenever possible we use meat from animals raised without the use of antibiotics or added hormones,” it explains on its website. “We source organic and local produce when practical.”
Whenever possible? When practical? That certainly gives the restaurant chain some wiggle room. However, Chipotle’s actions and its operating success have inspired many other concepts to follow suit.
It’s a Revolution
Subway and Chilf-fil-A’s changes put them among a long list of companies that have cleaned up their acts after being confronted with unwise practices.
Starbucks (SBUX) is one of the best known examples. Two years ago, it began to catch some heat for its use as cochineal as a food dye. What’s cochineal? It’s actually a dye derived from the bodies of crushed beetles, in this case used to add a lovely red hue to Starbucks’ Strawberries & Creme Frappuccino, raspberry swirl cake, strawberry and banana smoothie, and other baked treats.
It’s a natural food dye, but its presence on the ingredient list didn’t sit well with vegetarians and folks who prefer not to ingest ground up insects.
Chipotle’s mantra has been primarily positioned as an argument for sustainable farming of animals. This means raising livestock in humane habitats. Chipotle earned critical praise three years ago when it rolled out a short film depicting a farmer who transforms his industrial meat factory into a more sustainable operation. Willie Nelson belts out a rendition of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” in the rendered clip, which was also shortened into a television commercial.
Still, that idea hasn’t gained enormous traction, simply because the pork, poultry, and beef raised that way costs more. But some are paying attention.
Wendy’s (WEN) announced last year that it wants to move its ham and bacon sourcing to gestation stall-free pork suppliers. Just like Chick-fil-A with its antibiotic-free chicken, Wendy’s is setting its goal for several years in the future. The burger chain’s aiming to use stall-free pork by 2022.
However, things have to start somewhere. Given the success that Chipotle’s been having — sales rose nearly 18 percent last year — it’s easy to see why so many of its peers are ready to hop on the bandwagon.
Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Chipotle Mexican Grill and Starbucks. The Motley Fool owns shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill and Starbucks.