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In a move as smart and spicy as its signature burritos, Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE: CMG ) (NYSE: CMG-B ) is promoting a new documentary about the way our food is produced -- and playing up its own use of organic ingredients in the process.
The burrito chain started sponsoring free screenings of Food Inc. this past week in 32 U.S. cities. It's also been putting promotional materials in all its restaurants to spread the word.
Food Inc. exposes many disturbing practices in American food production, including the workings of industrialized farms and the influence huge agribusiness companies wield on regulatory policy. The film also features well-known voices in food ethics, such as The Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan and Fast Food Nation's Eric Schlosser.
Given some of the research I've done on agricultural monolith Monsanto (NYSE: MON ) , I'm not exactly shocked that the company isn't joining Chipotle in sponsoring this film. In another complete non-surprise, Monsanto has responded on its website that "Food Inc. is a one-sided, biased film" that is "counter-productive to the serious dialogue surrounding the critical topic of our nation's food supply."
Know your burrito
Chipotle's move may seem a bit ironic -- last time I checked, it, too, was a corporation -- but the sponsorship is actually quite shrewd. Chipotle's mission includes a "Food with Integrity" vow; the chain consistently works to add organic, naturally raised meat and locally produced ingredients to its menu. But Chipotle recently admitted that most customers aren't even aware of these efforts. Promoting Food Inc. should help Chipotle emphasize its own role in what many consider a more responsible, natural, and environmentally sustainable way of eating.
Chipotle isn't alone in promoting healthy, organic eating. Whole Foods Market has long embraced such trends in sustainable food production (and consumption), and it could stand to benefit if Food Inc.'s audiences leave the theater hungry for more organic fare. So could Wal-Mart Stores (NYSE: WMT ) , which has embarked on many environmental initiatives and even talked up gaining local farmers as suppliers last summer.
Unfortunately, there's a chance that Chipotle's efforts to promote Food Inc. could give the company a bit of indigestion. Chipotle's been receiving broadsides from many critics, including Schlosser, regarding its compensation practices for Florida's tomato-farm workers, even though it gets credit in the film for its sustainable meat buying. Giving the film such prominent promotion could call attention to the chain's own alleged failings.
Despite the controversy, though, the move should increase Chipotle's goodwill, while helping to emphasize one of its clearest differences from fast-food rivals such as Yum! Brands' (NYSE: YUM ) Taco Bell, McDonald's (NYSE: MCD ) , and Burger King (NYSE: BKC ) . Let's just hope that if the company supports any similar efforts in the future, it'll first make sure it's truly ready for its close-up.
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