IS THERE SUCH A THING AS FOOD BEING TOO LOCAL? If you ask the legions of loqua- cious locavores that have sprung up over the past decade, the answer
would be a resounding “No!”
However, it is an interesting question
that has been raised as multi-state E. coli
outbreaks continue to mount at Chipotle
Mexican Grill, sending up a warning flag
Chipotle operates about 2,000 outlets
nationwide and buys about 10 percent of
its produce locally. At press time, the actual
source of the outbreak was still unknown
and the co-CEOs were all
over the financial media
doing damage control.
It is going to be a long
road back for the Chipotle
brand. I believe the chain
will eventually work its
way back into the hearts
and stomachs of patrons
around the country once
the stores and suppliers
get a clean bill of health.
However, it seems prophetic for a company that
has publicly criticized and satirized other
fast-feeders for using so-called “factory
farms” and mass production, to be—so to
speak—hoisted on its own petard.
As the investigation continued, Chipotle
decided to cut back on local product and
institute central control over preparation
and storage in order to bolster food safety.
This was not an easy decision, and a drastic
change considering the chain’s growth and
image has been based on the use of fresh,
The new process involves cutting, sanitizing and hermetically sealing tomatoes,
cilantro and lettuce in a central kitchen
where they are inspected and then shipped
out to restaurants. What choice was there,
considering there have been six outbreaks
since July including salmonella in tomatoes.
Interestingly, some observers have speculated that Chipotle’s doubling down on
food safety could work against them with
customers who like to see food prepared
on site and might question the quality of
the products that are not locally grown.
This again brings up the question of
what should be considered local. If you
look at a chain like Waitrose in the U.K.,
local is defined as within 30 miles of a store.
In 2008, Congress’ Food, Conservation and
Energy Act said the maximum distance
food can be transported and still be considered local is 400 miles from its point of
origin or within the state in which it is produced. Chipotle started out by defining it as
products grown within 200 miles of restaurants. It is now up to 350 miles.
Basically, there is no definition.
I have to admit, wandering around local
farmers markets is a Zen-like experience
for me personally. As such, I certainly
cannot fault those who are entranced by
small-batch local product. It speaks of
our desire for a simpler and safer time.
Additionally, some view local food as
insurance against natural disasters that
take place thousands of miles away but
disrupt the entire supply chain.
At the same time, I cannot bring myself
to vilify corporate agribusiness for simply
being big and efficient. And while there is
some correlation between locally sourced
food and health, imbuing local foods with
the magical ability to make people health-
ier, reduce the carbon footprint or reshape
the food business, is largely a myth.
Freshly harvested food that has been
stored properly can retain its nutritional
value. Perhaps it is more a matter of consumer education. If, for example, people
do not like vegetables, it is more likely that
preparation, not the location of the field, is
Studies have indicated that so called
“factory-farms”—a name that needs to be
replaced by something more benign—may
be better for the environment because they
are centralized and the products produced
might be safer than those from small farms,
which might not have all safety protocols in
place. Moreover, economies of scale have
supported new technologies that produce
higher yields and food safety practices that
have reduced foodborne illnesses to a fraction of what they once were.
In fact, two Canadian researchers have
said that if we were still using 1950s technology we would have to harvest a land
mass the size of South America to feed
the world. Pierre Desrochers and his wife,
Hiroko Shimizu from the University of
Toronto have published a very controversial book called The Locavore’s Dilemma in
which they state outright that the gains in
food security and standards of living are
due to the development of large producers
and corporate agribusiness, despite protestations from food activists.
LOOKING AT LOCAL
Chipotle’s recent E. coli outbreak raises the question, what should be considered local?
By Len Lewis
Len Lewis is a regular Grocery
Headquarters columnist and
veteran industry journalist.