Chipotle's Pulled Pork Highlights Debate Over Sow Welfare : The Salt Wondering why your local Chipotle is no longer serving pork? It's because a big supplier was housing pigs in confined quarters. But there's debate about whether that's really worse for the animals.

Chipotle's Pulled Pork Highlights Debate Over Sow Welfare

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About a third of all Chipotle restaurants are not serving pork right now. That's because the restaurant chain suspended one of its major pork suppliers. As NPR's Dan Charles reports, the incident raises questions about whether Chipotle can keep growing and still maintain its current standards.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: When Chipotle suspended its pork supplier, the restaurant chain did not say exactly what the problem was, only that the unidentified supplier was violating Chipotle's animal welfare standards. But David Maren says he had a pretty good idea what the violation was. Maren is the founder of Tendergrass Farms near Roanoke, Virginia.

DAVID MAREN: An online, mail-order meat company, specializing, at this point, in organic lard.

CHARLES: Maren sells lard and pork from pigs that are raised Chipotle-style. They get no antibiotics or growth-promoting drugs. They aren't confined inside buildings. In fact, most of them spend their whole life on pasture. And Maren says these days even big pork producers are willing to adopt part of that package. They don't mind so much cutting out the drugs, but there are two technologies that a lot of them cannot imagine giving up - things that Chipotle does not allow.

MAREN: Specifically, the use of farrowing crates and then the use of slatted floors.

CHARLES: Farrowing crates are small pens about 6 feet by 2 feet, where mother pigs are confined for about three weeks when they give birth and nurse their piglets.

MAREN: And the purpose is to protect the baby pigs.

CHARLES: Metal walls keep sows from stepping on the piglets, but it also means the pigs cannot move or turn around. Slatted floors, meanwhile, are a way to raise lots of pigs indoors, out of the weather, and keep them clean. Manure drops down through the slats. Critics say it's inhumane to keep pigs inside on a hard, bare surface.

An industry source has confirmed Maren's suspicions. These two things were the cause of Chipotle's pork problems this past week. The company does not allow farrowing crates or slatted-floor housing, and it discovered that this supplier was using them. But David Maren, who sells organic and pasture-raised pork, is surprisingly conflicted about the situation. Even though we produce pork Chipotle's way, he says, I'm not really sure these rules make sense. Take farrowing crates - people look at them and say that looks inhumane.

MAREN: And certainly it does. But the alternative is - if you put a picture right beside that of a farmer walking out of his alternative, you know, farrowing house with a five-gallon bucket full of dead baby pigs, you have to ask yourself, which is more humane?

CHARLES: Or take that slatted-floor housing. It's true - it's not a natural environment for pigs, but it's efficient. You can handle a lot of pigs. What Chipotle wants takes a lot more work and space.

MAREN: It's all about scalability. You know, they can find maybe - maybe a few hundred farmers who can do that, and I think they have. Can they find a few thousand farmers or tens of thousands to feed America? I think at this point in time that's going to be very challenging.

CHARLES: Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold says people should not jump to that conclusion. This was a one-time problem with a single supplier, he says. In general, Chipotle has not had great difficulty finding suppliers who are willing and able to follow its rules. Arnold would not identify the offending supplier. He says it's possible they did not fully understand what Chipotle wanted.

CHRIS ARNOLD: We believe that these are good people who are trying to do the right thing, and if they can bring the protocols in order with our standards, we'd certainly consider having them back as part of our supply network.

CHARLES: But that won't happen quickly. It would mean building new farrowing pens and new structures to house the pigs. Dan Charles, NPR News.

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