Friday, February 11, 2011

New Student Group, FARM, Hosts Chipotle and Discusses ‘Food Integrity’ at First Meeting

By John Hedges, FARM Law & Policy Group, 1L Representative

Burritos from Chipotle Mexican Grill are eaten daily by University of Denver Sturm College of Law students, but rarely do those students consider the complex system responsible for the convenient meal. On January 31, the burritos were hand-delivered by Houman Iskandani along with a detailed presentation on Chipotle’s commitment to “food with integrity.”

Iskandani, area manager of the restaurant’s Denver locations, was the guest speaker at the inaugural meeting of the College of Law Food, Agriculture and Resource Management Law and Policy Group (FARM). He explained how Chipotle’s founder, Steve Ells, started working more closely with suppliers after visiting Midwestern pig farms and witnessing how livestock is conventionally raised.

“It’s really devastating,” Iskandani said after describing pigs confined to small pens and the overpowering stench of the sheds.

That experience led the company to demand naturally raised meat, dairy products, and organic produce whenever practical. The company characterizes animals as “naturally raised” if they are humanely treated, fed a vegetarian diet, given no hormones, and “allowed to display their natural tendencies.”

Iskandani reported that all of the pork and chicken Chipotle serves meets its naturally-raised standards. Forty-five percent of its beef and 35 percent of the dairy served meets Chipotle’s “natural” standards.

He also discussed the company’s preference for local producers. He proudly explained that Denver-area stores get as much seasonal produce as possible from Grant Family Farms, an organic producer near Fort Collins, CO, and other local providers.

Iskandani said that the company’s efforts have encouraged more farmers and ranchers to use organic and other “natural” methods. “We are able to influence the farm industry, and we are very happy about that,” he said.

The first Chipotle restaurant was opened on Evans Avenue, near the University of Denver, in 1993. The chain expanded rapidly and now has over 1,000 locations including recently-opened international locations in Ontario and London. Iskandani explained that “in Europe it is much easier to get what we are looking for” in naturally-raised food. He added, “unfortunately this is something we battle [in the U.S.] every day.”

Iskandani’s presentation provided insight into an escalating conflict between conventional agriculture and farmers making efforts to use more sustainable techniques. The conflict received fresh media coverage recently after the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved genetically modified alfalfa to be planted without limits.

Chipotle’s situation is surprising because the demand for natural food is being driven by the company’s leadership, rather than by its consumers. Iskandani said he is “very surprised” that, except in a few markets, “the majority of the people don’t care” about how their food is raised.

“We need to know where the food is coming from,” Iskandani said. “Our campaign of food integrity is mostly about creating awareness on the outside,” he added. “That is the right thing to do.”

Iskandani’s presentation included food safety, distribution, farm labor, carbon emissions, corporate partnerships and even international economics. It was an appropriate first meeting for the FARM Law and Policy Group, who, like Chipotle, seeks to promote more discussion about food production, relevant agriculture laws, and policies creating our complex system.

Thirty-five people, mostly J.D. students, attended FARM’s first meeting. The group is open to all University of Denver students, and encourages the involvement of any interested participants from the broader Denver community.

At the initial meeting, FARM’s co-presidents Jeffrey John and Rachel Armstrong suggested, with enough support, agricultural law courses could be part of the Sturm College of Law curriculum. They discussed plans for hosting future events with elected leaders, government agencies, and local attorneys, to promote the awareness of and increase the dialogue around complex FARM law issues. They also encouraged students to promote discussion of food and agriculture issues through related environmental and land use organizations at DU law school. Specifically, the co-presidents asked for motivated students to research the FARM issues important to them, and to make efforts to publish here on the Environment21 blog and on the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute’s Triple Pundit blog. The many topics suggested – food safety, genetically modified foods, intellectual property, water use, bio-fuels, and urban farming – reflect both the breadth of the group’s interests and the impact of agriculture on many areas of law.

FARM will be represented on an “Urban Eating” panel at the Mountain Sustainability Summit, Feb. 17 and 18 at the University of Denver.

Editor's note: The picture shows Ells Niman, Chiptole's founder, visiting a supplier's farm.

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