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More than 40 Chipotle restaurants in the Pacific Northwest remained closed today. A handful of them have been linked to an outbreak of food poisoning caused by E. coli bacteria. Investigators are trying to figure out what items on the Chipotle menu were contaminated and how. It's a reminder that in the food business, it's not easy to live up to lofty marketing slogans. Food with integrity is Chipotle's motto. But it's difficulties extend beyond food safety. NPR's Dan Charles reports that Chipotle is also having problems with its ban on meat from animals treated with antibiotics.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Chipotle has ridiculed the mainstream meat industry for using antibiotics. It's put out catchy online videos showing cartoon versions of big meat factories where machines inject animals with drugs that turn them grotesquely plump.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURE IMAGINATION")
FIONA APPLE: (Singing) Come with me, and you'll be in a world of pure imagination.
CHARLES: Chipotle, it suggests, is the alternative. In reality, though, Chipotle's hard line on antibiotics isn't quite as uncompromising as the ads make it seem. The company's suppliers can, in fact, use these drugs. Here's the company's spokesman, Chris Arnold.
CHRIS ARNOLD: Under our protocol, if an animal is sick and needs to be treated with antibiotics, it should be treated with antibiotics. But then it's removed from our program.
CHARLES: That animal is sold to someone else who usually pays less for the animals than Chipotle does, and Chipotle can say, our animals never get antibiotics.
ARNOLD: It's easier to explain to people.
CHARLES: Now though, Chipotle is being forced to do a bit more explaining because it's running into a pork shortage. A lot of farmers don't want to raise pigs the way Chipotle demands. It's not so much the antibiotic restriction. Chipotle also requires them to let pigs root around outdoors or in buildings with dirt floors.
So to get enough pork, Chipotle has turned to a British supplier, and that British pork producer has a different policy on antibiotics. It treats pigs when they get sick, and when they recover, those pigs go right back into the regular pork supply. Some will become Chipotle's carnitas. Chipotle restaurants that serve pork from this supplier will have a little sign explaining how that pork is different.
Now, actually, the pork itself is not different at all. There shouldn't be traces of antibiotics in any of it. Veterinarian Gail Hansen says such residues are against the law in all meat.
GAIL HANSEN: So you're not eating antibiotic-laden meat, so to speak.
CHARLES: She says antibiotic use on farm animals is controversial for a different reason. When the drugs are overused, it can lead to more drug-resistant bacteria and possibly more human infections that are hard to treat. She says that's a good reason to use antibiotics rarely, if possible, never. But she says never is not always possible.
HANSEN: Sometimes bad things happen to good animals. Sometimes they need antibiotics because they're sick.
CHARLES: Hansen is a longtime critic of antibiotic use on farms, but she does not believe in just banning it.
HANSEN: We tend to want to think of things in black and white when we really live in the gray zone.
CHARLES: She's happy that Chipotle is stepping more openly into that gray zone, acknowledging that antibiotics will be used on occasion. At the same time, some big traditional restaurant chains like McDonald's also are promising to cut back on antibiotic use. And Hansen says in all these cases, it can be hard for a consumer to know whether companies are operating responsibly because there is no black and white answer. She wants the government to step in to verify that meat producers are using drugs only when necessary. Dan Charles, NPR News.
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