Chipotle Mexican Grill is facing a shortage of “responsibly raised,” beef this year, but the chain maintains that it is not changing its standards for what constitutes the kind of meat befitting its “Food With Integrity” positioning.

The Denver-based fast-casual chain said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon that it would consider new supply chain protocols, but nothing is changing in how it classifies meat as “responsibly raised” — free of added hormones and antibiotics — regardless of a tight beef supply in the United States this year.

The statement was released in part as a response to reports published Tuesday that said the brand might change its standards to use meat treated with antibiotics in cases of livestock illness.

“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; 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,” founder and co-chief executive Steve Ells said in the statement. “We decided to start serving meat from animals that have never been given antibiotics or added hormones more than a decade ago. We continue to be committed to the elimination of antibiotics that are used to promote growth in livestock being raised in confinement operations.”

In 2012, the more than 1,500-unit brand served more than 120 million pounds of responsibly raised beef, pork and chicken.

However, Chipotle occasionally faces shortages of meat from animals raised under its standards of “responsibly raised,” spokesman Chris Arnold said in an interview. When those shortages occur, Chipotle posts notices in affected restaurants so customers are aware that livestock producing its ingredients might have been treated with antibiotics. Currently, all of the chain’s pork and chicken meet Chipotle’s “responsibly raised” standard, and about 80 percent to 85 percent of its beef does, Arnold said.

While Chipotle considers whether the strict “never-ever” protocol regarding animals and antibiotics is best for its customers and ranchers, the chain said it would not end a relationship with a beef supplier that used antibiotics to treat illness in its cattle.

“We wouldn’t terminate a contract with a supplier for that reason,” Arnold said. “If your animals require antibiotics for treatment from illness, that’s the right thing to do. But the animals don’t stay in the program [for Chipotle’s food supply].”

Chipotle requires those suppliers to separate those cattle from the herd that provides beef to Chipotle’s restaurants in order for the chain to source as much naturally raised beef as possible.

He added that Chipotle’s supply chain is virtually completely domestic and does not rely on imported protein commodities.

Chipotle is testing different cuts of beef to get more steak from its ranchers’ supply, “but that’s a slow process,” Arnold said. “Adding cuts of steak isn’t as simple as it might seem,” he said, “because you need the same textures and flavors, but they also have to cook in the same amount of time [as current cuts of steak].”

In Chipotle’s second-quarter earnings call, chief financial officer Jack Hartung said supplying all of the chain’s steak needs from naturally raised sources would be “a real challenge” this year. “We’re working to get that back up to 100 percent,” he said.

The other big challenge from the food cost side of Chipotle’s equation this year would be removing as many genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, from the brand’s supply chain as possible, Hartung added.

Ells opened the first Chipotle in 1993, and the chain began procuring responsibly raised meats in 1999.

Contact Mark Brandau at mark.brandau@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN