At the New York City premiere of “Farmed and Dangerous” this past Tuesday, co-executive producer Mark Crumpacker told attendees that representatives of mainstream agriculture had expressed a certain level of dislike for the web miniseries, the first episode of which had been released on Hulu that day.
The four-part series, produced by Chipotle Mexican Grill, satirizes what Chipotle founder Steve Ells calls “industrial farming.” I caught up with Ells at the pre-screening cocktail party at Manhattan’s Bryant Park Hotel, and he told me “Farmed and Dangerous” was intended to shine a light on the lengths to which industrial farming companies would go to spread misinformation.
The story focuses on Animoil, an evil agribusiness that is introducing a new type of animal feed called the PetroPellet. Made of petroleum, the new product bypasses the costly process of giving actual food to cattle. One unfortunate side effect: Sometimes the cattle that eat PetroPellets explode.
A video of just such an explosion is obtained by Farmed and Dangerous’s hero, natural farmer Chip Randolph (played by actor John Sloan), who uploads it. The video goes viral, and Animoil executives are furious. They enlist Buck Marshall (Ray Wise) of the Industrial Food Image Bureau (I FIB, get it?) to get the video taken down. Marshall doesn’t hesitate to pimp out his sexy blonde daughter Sophia (Karynn Moore) to attempt to seduce or otherwise persuade the likeable and incorruptible Chip to take down the video.
Before showing us all four webisodes, Crumpacker, who is Chipotle’s chief marketing officer, said agribusiness firms hastened to point out that no product resembling PetroPellets existed and he speculated that maybe they didn’t understand that it was satire.
I can’t speak for those businesses, but I’m still pretty sure that they got the joke, understood that the joke was on them and wanted to point out factual errors. They probably thought that was necessary because they’ve seen the public swallow all sorts of misinformation about how they raise the food we eat.
In fact, Chipotle has in the past helped to popularize such misinformation. It did that most recently with “The Scarecrow,” a video connected to a new smartphone app released last September that shows cartoon chickens being injected with something and then puffing up — the obvious implication being that the chickens are injected with growth hormones — and sad-eyed cartoon cows with their heads sticking out of crates. That’s a reference to veal being raised in crates.
You can watch the video below, if you like.
But chickens aren’t injected with hormones. They’re just not. The only livestock in the United States treated with growth hormones are cattle. Some hormones are approved for use in lamb, but lamb producers don’t use them. None are approved for use in hogs or chickens.
And veal aren’t raised in crates. Many of them are tethered in individual pens, but they’re not in crates (and the pens — the ones I’ve visited have been clean, airy and well ventilated — are being phased out because consumers don’t like them; they’re slated to be gone by 2017).
Do you object to cattle being treated with hormones? Do you not want to eat veal raised in pens? Do you have other issues with the United States’ food supply, such as objection to genetically modified foods or livestock treated with antibiotics? That’s fine; object. But you should first understand the issues and understand why you’re objecting, and that’s not easy.
A couple of years ago I visited a dairy farm in Western New York. Full disclosure: I was taken by the Veal Committee of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. I was taken to a barn where the cows were recovering after having given birth. They were standing around, some of them still expelling their placentas (not pretty, but that’s what they were doing). The farmer explained that after giving birth about half of the cows were treated with antibiotics. I immediately thought of those sub-therapeutic antibiotics I’d heard about — that animals that aren’t sick are treated with antibiotics to promote growth and that as a result antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria had developed, or so I’d heard.
So of course I asked the farmer why he was treating half his cows with antibiotics and he said that their blood had been tested and they had elevated white blood cell counts, indicating that they were fighting off infections.
That’s not sub-therapeutic; that’s what antibiotics are for.
I was later told that no farmers use antibiotics as growth stimulants for the plain and simple reason that antibiotics don’t stimulate growth. They’re also not used sub-therapeutically because they’re expensive and farmers don’t use them unless they’re necessary.
[Update, April 23, 2015: It turns out that I was told wrong. antibiotics are used as growth promoters in livestock, but that practice will be phased out by the end of 2016]
But, you might ask me, would that dairy farmer I met have to treat half of his cows with antibiotics if they weren’t in such close quarters that infection would spread easily? You might ask why half of them were fighting infections in the first place.
Those are good questions, and I don’t know the answers. And unless you’re a dairy farmer or a veterinarian specializing in cattle, you probably don’t know either.
These issues are complex. 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. Maybe there are better ways to feed humanity, but understanding what those ways are requires research, education and intelligent thought that I think would benefit from conversation with the people who are feeding us.
During a panel discussion after the screening, executive producer Daniel Rosenberg, a partner in Piro, the New York-based company that produced “Farmed and Dangerous” with Chipotle, said the intention of the series wasn’t to criticize any specific farming practice, but to start a dialog.
That’s a great idea. Actor Ray Wise had an even better one. He said that at some point there had to be a “meeting of the minds” between the two sides.
It’s hard to do that when you start by satirizing one side and engaging in purposeful obfuscation. To be fair, there is brief dialog between Chip and Sophia about pressing issues relating to how our food is raised, but mostly there’s lampooning of agribusiness through Animoil and a seemless waffling between possibly legitimate issues and absolute nonsense. Most of them are serious spoilers, so I’ll leave them alone.
But not this one: At one point in the series, the evil, daughter-pimping Buck Marshall says at a cocktail party that McDonald’s doesn’t own Chipotle; that’s just a rumor that he started.
Talk about obfuscation. Although it’s true that McDonald’s doesn’t own Chipotle, it most certainly did at one point. McDonald’s bought a minority stake in Chipotle in 1998, when the burrito chain only had about a dozen locations. It later took on a majority stake — 90 percent at one point — before selling it back to Ells in 2006, when it had grown to around 480 units.
In the panel discussion, Crumpacker said Chipotle needed to be creative in its marketing and make films like Farmed and Dangerous to spread its message because it had such a small marketing budget compared to McDonald’s.
Smaller than McDonald’s; sure. McDonald’s is the highest grossing restaurant chain in the country. But according to Nation’s Restaurant News’ latest Top 100 Report, Chipotle had annual U.S. systemwide sales of more than $2.7 billion. That ranked it 21st of all chains in the United States, between Dairy Queen and IHOP. It had just under 1,400 units back then (1,398 to be exact), and it’s added nearly 100 since then, according to Chipotle’s most recent annual report.
Chipotle’s not small. Implying that it’s small is obfuscation. Implying its ownership by McDonald’s is a false rumor, rather than an outdated fact, is obfuscation.
If you want to start a dialog, that’s not the way to do it.
Update: April 23, 2015 This story has been updated to correct the author’s misperceptions about antibiotic use in livestock