Conventional vs. Grass-fed Beef

A steak burrito is arranged for a photograph with a drink and bags of chips at a Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. restaurant in Ho
A steak burrito is arranged for a photograph with a drink and bags of chips at a Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. restaurant in Hollywood, California, U.S., on Tuesday, July 16, 2013. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. is scheduled to release earnings data on July 18. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In the world of fast food, Chipotle's unique approach to sourcing ingredients has earned us a lot of attention. Our vision is to change the way people think about and eat fast food, so nothing is more important to us than serving our customers fresh, delicious ingredients that are raised responsibly and prepared using classic cooking techniques.

When deciding which ingredients to source, our internal discussions consider many factors including taste, animal welfare, farming practices, supply quantity, price and location among others. We are always trying to find what we consider to be the best ingredients by balancing these various factors. For some ingredients, finding the best source is easy. In other cases, like beef, finding the best source can be quite complex -- the right answer isn't always obvious. When it comes to beef, for one thing, there are many different ways to raise cattle -- from conventional (with antibiotics and hormones) to the higher standards we require for our Responsibly Raised brand beef (without antibiotics and hormones), and from grain-finished to entirely grass-fed cattle.

Over the years, we have had great success serving the premium beef we call Responsibly Raised, which is produced according to high standards requiring, among other things, that animals be raised without hormones or antibiotics. But lately, we have been wrestling with a particularly vexing issue regarding this beef. Over the last five years, as our restaurant count has grown from about 800 restaurants to more than 1,600, so have our demand for all of the ingredients we use. This has been a very good thing for the farmers and ranchers who raise those ingredients. As our restaurant count has grown, these farmers have had the opportunity to grow with us. In addition, we have helped numerous meat and dairy farmers convert from conventional production methods to the more responsible models we prefer.

Nevertheless, sometimes the existing supply of the premium meats we serve is unable to meet our growing demand. On occasions when we are unable to secure sufficient quantities of a particular Responsibly Raised meat, we temporarily replace it with a conventionally raised alternative -- always informing our customers about this substitution with signage in our restaurants. This has been the case recently with a portion of the steak we serve, as the size of the total U.S. cattle herd has shrunk to its lowest point in more than 60 years.

Rather than serve conventionally raised steak, we recently began sourcing some steak from ranches in Southern Australia, which is among the very best places in the world for raising beef cattle entirely on grass. The meat produced by these ranchers is "grass-fed" in the truest sense of the term: The cattle spend their entire lives grazing on pastures or rangelands, eating only grass or forages (by definition, forages are hay and grass--corn is not forage). It meets or exceeds the husbandry standards set forth by the American Grassfed Association, not to mention all of the protocols we apply to our domestic Responsibly Raised beef. The cattle are raised without added hormones, antibiotics or growth promotants by ranchers committed to humane animal husbandry. Like the domestic beef we serve, our Australian grass-fed steak is aged and never frozen.

In 2013, our company purchased about 45 million pounds of domestic Responsibly Raised beef; but the U.S. supply isn't growing quickly enough to match our demand. Even though our loyalty to American ranchers is strong, rather than meet the shortfall with conventionally raised beef from cattle treated with growth hormones and antibiotics, we decided to take this opportunity to start sourcing more truly grass-fed steak. So in addition to expanding our supply of beef raised without growth hormones or antibiotics, we are particularly excited to be able to serve more beef that comes from cattle raised entirely on grass.

We believe that in addition to the simple fact that our Australian grass-fed beef is delicious, serving it is an important step in our never-ending journey to help build a food system based on what we call Food With Integrity. Returning to grass-based farming systems for cattle is a core component of our long-term vision. Most livestock today spend much of their lives in conditions far from the natural ecosystems in which they evolved. Rather than doing what cattle do best, which is using the unique biology of the rumen to convert grass to protein, most cattle spend the latter part of their lives in feedlots, where they are fed grain like corn and soy. (There's also evidence suggesting that grass-fed beef is healthier for the people who eat it, and when managed properly, easier on the environment.)

In the short-run, the grass-fed beef purchased from Australia will continue to supplement the premium Responsibly Raised beef we have long purchased from across the U.S. But over time, we hope that our demand for grass-fed beef will help pave the way for more American ranchers to adopt a grass-fed program, and in doing so turn grass-fed beef from a niche to a mainstream product.

There's no question that parts of the U.S. are ideal for raising beef cattle exclusively on grass. Many American ranchers are doing this on a small scale today, and in the coming years we hope that American grass-fed beef becomes the standard in our restaurants. While we're purchasing small amounts of grass-fed beef from American producers like Missouri's Rain Crow Ranch, most of the U.S. grass-fed beef that meets our standards is simply not produced in sufficient quantities to meet our demand. That's why we want to encourage more American ranchers to make the transition to raising cattle entirely on grass.

The transition toward grass-fed beef won't happen overnight. But we need to start somewhere, and years of research by our purchasing team suggests that Australia is the best place to start sourcing grass-fed beef at the scale. We're optimistic that our decision to serve grass-fed beef from Australia is one small step in the larger journey of restoring the practice of raising great American beef entirely on grass.