Farmed & Disingenuous: Chipotle’s Agribusiness Attack Upsets Farmers

CNBC’s Jim Cramer calls it ‘brilliant,’ while farmers cry foul over Hulu series’ ‘divisive propaganda.’

Chipotle says it’s all about “food with integrity.” “Facts with integrity,” not so much. Marketing efforts by the burrito chain once owned by McDonald’s smear many of America’s farmers and use scare tactics to drive consumers away from Chipotle’s competitors.

On Feb. 17, Chipotle released an online original video series on Hulu.com, called “Farmed and Dangerous.” The comedy pits a the fictitious Animoil farm and their powerful public relations agency Industrial Food Image Bureau (I.F.I.B.) run by Buck Marshall against little guy “sustainable” farmer Chip Randolph, who has audaciously spread online video of their cow exploding because it was fed “petropellets.” The storyline is laughable, but the impression that big agriculture is guilty of practices that are harmful to animals and people isn’t.

Jim Cramer at CNBC ate up the program, promoting it and Chipotle on “Mad Money” on Feb. 3 and 4, long before the show was available for public viewing. He called it “brilliant” and “one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.” On Feb. 3, he interviewed Chipotle’s chief financial officer extensively, and Cramer claimed that farm groups really talk like Buck Marshall, the fictitious head of I.F.I.B. on the web series.

“Good Morning America” also mentioned the series on Feb. 18, and said it was “funny.” The segment quoted two Chipotle spokesmen, but not a single upset farmer or farm association.

According to news outlets including Politico, Chipotle has openly said the show “has a social message.” Chris Arnold, Chipotle’s communications director, told Variety in an email, “Our aim was to create a show that presented some issues in the food system -- the heavy reliance on fossil-fuels in large-scale farming, GMOs, the overuse of antibiotics -- but to do that in a way that was entertaining.”

Many farmers, however, are not entertained by the food company’s portrayal of their businesses. The Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel (MJS) spoke with Wisconsin farmers angered by the show. The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation called it “divisive propaganda” and a “smear campaign against America’s farm families by a corporate restaurant chain.” MJS also reported that Mike North, of the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association, said “It’s saddening. It really is. There is a basic misunderstanding of what farming is and how it has progressed over time.”

Nicole, who blogs at Farm Girl Facts of Life, spent more than 20 years on the farm and said, “The Chipotle series called Farmed and Dangerous that’s coming out on Hulu is crap. There, I flat out said it. They are using humor, and scary marketing ploys to scare consumers into buying organic and antibiotic free food.”

Nation’s Restaurant News (NRN) also criticized the satirical miniseries and explained a number of farming practices in a blog post. NRN said, “There are reasons why mainstream animal husbandry practices are mainstream, and those reasons are not to poison people, destroy the earth or cause cattle to explode.”

NRN also pointed out “obfuscation” in the series including a joke that McDonald’s ownership of Chipotle was “just a rumor” and the implication that Chipotle is a small company, which with more than 1,400 restaurants and sales of $2.7 billion annually is certainly not the case.

Last year, Chipotle released a creepy video called “The Scarecrow,” that also outraged many in the agriculture community. Cattle Network’s staff writer Angela Bowman noted that, “To the ag community, however, the film does nothing but further mislead consumers.”

Jayson Lusk, a food economist and Regents Professor and Willard Sparks Endowed Chair at Oklahoma State University, told the Business and Media Institute the latest video series from Chipotle is “fear marketing” because it “leaves the average consumer with the impression that there is something unsafe or unseemly” about the way their food is made.

Pointing to that and previous videos, Lusk said they make it seem like all animals are full of antibiotics and growth hormones. But he said “there is no safety risk from eating animals that were on antibiotics.” The controversy over antibiotics is the possibility of antibiotic resistance and science hasn’t settled that question yet, according to Lusk, who also noted that contrary to the implication in “The Scarecrow” video, chickens are not given growth hormones at all.

Even Chipotle can’t always live up to its own standards. Due to a shortage of “responsibly-raised meat” in 2013, the company said it would consider new supply chain protocols, according to Nation’s Restaurant News.

— Julia A. Seymour is Assistant Managing Editor for the Business and Media Institute at the Media Research Center. Follow Julia A. Seymour on Twitter.