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It's no longer just foodies at farm markets or Whole Foods buying antibiotic-free, pasture-raised meats.
Increased demand is coming from lots of big players, including Hyatt Hotels; institutional food providers such as Bon Appetit Management Co., which caters to schools and companies; and the fast-food chain Chipotle Mexican Grill. And it's changing the game.
In fact, this year, Chipotle, which is growing so quickly that it's opening about three new locations each week, will slowly braise and sell about 120 million pounds of naturally raised pork, chicken and beef that meets its antibiotic-free standards.
The company's transition to antibiotic-free meat began more than a decade ago when Chipotle realized its pork wasn't selling very well. And Steve Ells, the founder, wanted to make some changes.
He stumbled upon an article called "The Lost Taste of Pork" in The Art of Eating, a boutiquey, food-lover's journal, which detailed the practices of Paul Willis, a family farmer in Iowa. Willis raises pigs on pasture, the old-fashioned way. At the time, Willis' methods were a radical departure from the large, industrial operations that confine pigs indoors and feed them regular doses of antibiotics.
In the article, published back in 1999, writer Edward Behr described a thick pork chop he'd eaten at Chez Panisse in Berkeley that came from a pig raised on the Iowa farm. "It was the best pork I'd ever eaten — tender and somewhat fatty," he wrote. Ells was intrigued.
Ells ordered some pork from Willis, who had teamed up with Niman Ranch in Iowa, and Chipotle's customers responded: Despite a jump in price from $4.50 to $5.50 for a carnitas burrito, sales improved.
"We started selling twice as many carnitas as we had been before," Chipotle's Chris Arnold told me. He acknowledged that it's hard to know whether people truly detected a big difference, or if the in-store marketing about the switch to all-natural, antibiotic-free pigs caught people's attention. Either way, it set Chipotle on a new course.
I reached out to Willis, the farmer in Iowa who gave Chipotle its first taste of free-range pigs a decade ago, to ask how the natural-pork business is changing.
To be sure, antibiotic-free meat still makes up a tiny share of the market. Economists estimate it's around 2 percent. But demand is growing.
"The marketplace for what we do has increased dramatically," he says. When he began working with Niman Ranch, which operates a bit like a co-op, he was the only pork farmer. Now there are hundreds.
"I'm proud that we've created a market for people who want to raise livestock this way," Willis told me.
And increasingly, consumers seem to be making the connections about what they eat. Concerns about antibiotic resistance in humans have led the Food and Drug Administration to issue voluntary guidelines that recommend limiting the use of antibiotics in livestock animals.
As consumer awareness has grown, Chef Greg Lopez of Hyatt Hotels says people are showing that they're willing to pay more for food that they perceive to be more healthful.
"I think we're at that groundswell moment, at that tipping point right now," he says.
Lopez says this month Hyatt announced it will offer antibiotic-free, naturally raised meat, poulty and dairy options at all of its hotels. The chain decided to expand these options, in part, after it saw the success of a natural burger on the menu. Meyer Natural Angus supplies those burgers.
"When they [consumers] were given a choice between just burger, and burger that was naturally raised and hormone-free, 30 percent paid a premium, a couple of bucks" to get the antibiotic-free option, Lopez says.
The list of retailers making changes is expanding. Wal-Mart sells a number of antibiotic-free beef and poultry products.
And as demand grows some farmers and suppliers are scrambling to adjust.
One sign of growing pains — temporary hiccups in the supply chain. Hyatt's Lopez says just this week his favorite all-natural chicken supplier — Palouse Pastured Poultry — told him it is temporarily sold out. "I'm in a dry spell," Lopez says. "Their next slaughter is scheduled for the last week of June or the first week of July."
Lopez says the good news is that there are more farmers ramping up this kind of production, so he'll be able to buy antibiotic-free chickens from another farm this month.
As for Behr, and the contribution of his "Lost Taste of Pork" article that helped chart a new course for Chipotle, I called him up to ask him about it.
"This is the one huge piece of good I've done through writing about food," he said with a laugh. "The one, huge, thing!"
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