Chipotle Claims Better Animal Welfare Standards, but a New Investigation Suggests Otherwise

Undercover footage shows the fast food chain violating its own pledge to only slaughter animals who have been stunned.

Closeup of a chicken on a farm

Reported Food Industry

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New footage from inside a Virginia mega-slaughterhouse owned by poultry supplier George’s Food, LLC shows just how far Chipotle is from meeting its animal welfare goals. The video — taken by an undercover investigator — reveals the grueling process endured by chickens on their way to the fast food chain’s burrito bowls.

The video shows a type of chicken commonly raised for slaughter by factory farms, fast-growing “frankenchickens” that are processed via live shackle slaughter. In 2017, Chipotle committed to transitioning away from birds bred to maximize growth at the expense of animal well-being, and the method of slaughter by this year. “They pride themselves on being a leader” in the food industry, says Paula Tejeda-Moncrief who oversees investigations for the animal advocacy organization Mercy for Animals which is behind the new footage. “If Chipotle changes, then other companies are following them.”

It’s not just Chipotle that sources their chicken from George’s. Major national chains like Sam’s Club, Homeland Grocers and Kwik Stop are also customers. In fact, the processor is the 8th largest supplier of chicken in the country, with one single facility in Virginia slaughtering 60,000 chickens daily.

The Next Chapter in the “Downfall of Chipotle”

Over the past several months, industry observers have reported on the “downfall of Chipotle,” citing the chain’s increase in prices and decrease in quality. This new investigation into their supply chain reveals yet another reason why consumers may choose to look elsewhere for their burritos.

The footage of the facility shows birds killed using live shackle slaughter. One issue with the method is that birds can inadvertently avoid being stunned prior to having their throats slit. The video appears to include footage of several birds flapping their wings — evidently fully conscious — as a worker slices their throats. The evidence of conscious birds on the kill line suggests  Chipotle is failing to meet their own standards, as their most recent sustainability report states  “we require that the animals in our supply chain have been pre-slaughter stunned.”

Part of the problem is the type of bird seen in the video. So-called “frankenchickens” are “a lot heavier” than alternative breeds, points out Tejeda-Moncrief. Not only does that make their life prior to slaughter more difficult, but it also means they’re more susceptible to injury on the processing line.

According to the investigation, workers will feel the large birds’ joints dislocating when placing them into the live shackle system. “Sometimes shackled chickens would get caught in the machines and torn apart,” said the undercover investigator in a statement. “I saw their legs return to us, still in the shackles, the rest of their bodies missing.”

Chipotle did not reply to Sentient’s request for comment.

Slaughterhouse Conditions Cause Workers to Suffer

Still, it isn’t all bad news. Tejeda-Moncrief has been doing investigations work for over 7 years, and is beginning to see improvements in how workers handle the birds. “The treatment of the animals by the workers has improved,” she says. “Now what we see most is the reality of what the job is.”

Though the way workers handle the birds has improved, labor conditions in slaughterhouses remain dangerous. The sheer size of the birds is one problem, says Tejeda-Moncrief. “It’s extremely painful to lift birds this heavy.”

Another issue: line speeds, which at some points on the investigation video reached 120 birds per minute, causing the conveyor belts to overflow and staff to do their best to keep the flesh on the line. Workers at points used scissors to further process the carcasses, some of which were dull enough to make the work especially challenging. “[The workers] were frustrated, and they were in pain,” says Tejeda-Moncrief.

The Southeast poultry processor has a record of labor violations. In May of last year, George’s Food, LLC was ordered by the Department of Justice to pay $5.8 million in restitution to processing plant workers for conspiring to keep their wages low by sharing compensation information with other processors.

The investigation is one way the animal advocacy group presses for corporate accountability around animal welfare standards. “Chipotle had committed to end live-shackle [slaughter], and they haven’t,” says Tejeda-Moncrief. “They just need to report [their progress] so we know when this is going to happen.”

This article has been updated to correct a misstatement by the source. Chipotle reported in 2022 that 14% of the chickens in their supply chain are slaughtered using controlled atmospheric stun instead of live shackle slaughter.

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