As a committed sustainable food nut, I regularly gorge myself on food media. Everything Michael Pollan or Alice Waters writes, into the maw it goes. I've watched so many food documentaries that I know all the local food celebrities by sight and, when I spot them shopping at the farmer's market, become giddy and sneak photographs (eek! Cory Schrieber touched this fava bean!). So when I saw the new documentary Food, Inc. -- a biting indictment of the American food industry, and most pointedly, the way fast food juggernauts control the inputs, the politics, the cheapening of everything from labor to food safety -- was being shown for free thanks to a fast food chain, my eyes widened.

"You'll never eat Chicken McNuggets again," says one writer after watching the film. And yet until late 2006, McDonald's owned a majority stake in Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG), which just announced it was sponsoring a series of free screenings of Food, Inc. around the U.S. this week and next. Disconnect?

Evidently, not so much. One of the "good" farmers featured in the film is Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, a guy who believes in the pigness of pigs, the sort of farmer who espouses the very thing Food, Inc. does; that food should be grown humanely, sustainably, dare we say, happily. Salatin provides pork to Chipotle; founder Steve Ells believes so firmly in taking the exit ramp from CAFO meats that he and Salatin look at each other in videos with moony eyes.

Could Chipotle actually be this company it claims to be; "food with integrity"; a chain with growing power to change the very way the Food, Inc.-condemned industry works? Perhaps, perhaps it could. This glowing piece from the Washington Post heralds the way Chipotle, with its classically-trained chef of a founder, began serving the sustainably-raised local pork from Polyface Farms: quietly. Utterly without heraldry. An experiment management hoped could be duplicated in small farms in localities around the country.

Today, Chipotle is happily slurping up the tougher cuts of pork from Polyface Farms, slow roasting them and putting them in burritos, while the chops and tenderloins get sent to pricey restaurants. It's also eschewing chicken and beef fed antibiotics and hormones (though the claim that chickens are fed vegetarian feed has me shaking my head; truly free-range chickens eat slugs and worms and plenty of non-vegetable stuff; the real problem for chickens is the sorts of cages they're kept in and the fact that only one breed of chicken -- which is so incapable of living on pasture it can't walk 10 feet to get water in hot weather -- accounts for 99.9% of all chickens bred for meat in the U.S.; but I digress), and generally living the sustainable cuisine dream.

What Chipotle and Ells are doing; essentially, providing the demand for organic and sustainably-raised food before consumers themselves realize it's what they want; is forward-thinking and beyond admirable. The seemingly ridiculous embracing of an anti-fast food film by a fast food chain is, in reality, exactly the right move. Educating consumers on the considerable merits of the slow food, fast concept is thoroughly brilliant. And ultimately, perhaps, if right prevails, it will be the downfall of McDonald's and other multinational food corporations that have made their enormous business out of stripping the cost (and, oh yes, nutrition) from America's food supply.

I wonder what McDonald's management thinks, in retrospect, about its venture funding for the chain that looks to be, in every respect, its antithesis. Unless they're ready to wholly change the company's business model, those thoughts can't be good.


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