By John Maher
False advertising and marketing claims abound in the food industry, especially when it comes to animal welfare issues. But in a new twist, a bunch of disgruntled workers for a Chipotle supplier have erroneously accused the burrito bowl maker of “putting pigs over people” as a way of increasing pressure on the company for better wages and conditions.
We see this tactic work frequently enough: the manipulative use of media to “shame” corporations. It’s therefore not surprising to see the labor movement — which has been decimated over the last 30 years by the effects of neoliberalism and free-trade agreements — latch on to what has turned out to be a popular and cost-effective strategy for gaining the public’s attention.
What better way to heighten awareness of important issues, such as the ongoing struggle of fast food workers who are demanding the holy grail of $15/hour wages and the past struggles against child labor in Walmart’s and Nike’s supply chains?
As the Guardian has just reported, the latest group to go this route are workers employed by Huhtamaki USA, a subsidiary of a Finnish ceramics company. At stake are the burrito bowls that Huhtamaki produces for Chipotle and the pigs who’ve been thrown into this debate in a weird but telling way. Attempting to use media to shame Chipotle — by association — for an insufficient anthropocentric bias, Huhtamaki workers pleaded: “Chipotle: Put People over Pigs.”
While the workers’ cause is just, the problem is that their premise is false. What we do not see discussed in the poorly reported Guardian article are the connection between the welfare of workers and the welfare of pigs. This omission is the hallmark of media bias.
What does prioritizing pigs over people have to do with Huhtamaki, you might ask? Excellent question — but don’t look to the Guardian for insight. For those who do not peruse it everyday, the Guardian can be a bit chaotic. You might be surprised by how many readers comment on the poor quality of reporting and how infuriating it is to read a headline, click through to the story, and find none of the real issues addressed.
The Guardian is a corporation much like any other and the product it sells is sometimes defective. Here the defect is not only a disconnect between the copy and the headline, but the reporter’s failure to investigate the accuracy of the workers’ sloppy slogan.
Let’s look for the pigs in the article. Where are they? We know they end up as the signature ingredient in Chipotle’s popular starch-and-protein belly bomb, which produces blissful associations for hungry office workers on their lunch break. But the article looks no further than the bottom of the burrito bowl.
Why did the Huhtamaki USA workers, who apparently have some sort of alliance with the United Steelworkers and AFL/CIO, protest at Chipotle about pigs? The slogan presents a sort of moral high-ground fallacy, which is presupposed upon a false premise — that Chipotle actually favors pigs and animal welfare “over people.” Where is there any evidence of this favoritism? Why can’t both people and animals have better conditions?
The likely answer is that the worker’s slogan is intended to elicit righteous outrage in the reader. In other words, the workers are pretending that Chipotle has upset what animal scholars refer to as the scala naturae or “great chain of being,” in which human interests are deemed superior to animal interests and that you, in turn, should be pissed off that workers suffer. History is full of such examples of affective appeal – the TVA dam fight over the snail darter comes to mind as do objections to vivisection.
Does such shaming translate into dollars? No one bothered to ask, so it is essentially a pubic relations issue for Chipotle. The problem is that there is no evidence that ceramic workers suffer as a result of improving animal welfare, such as allowing pigs to run outside, roll in mud, or breathe non ammonia saturated air while feeling sunlight on their backs.
Maybe the real issue is that meat production in the US is often subsidized by the government through federal Small Business Association and Farm Service Agency loan guarantees and the National Pork Board ‘check off’ marketing programs, a point brilliantly dissected by Dave Simon in his Meatonomic$ book. Any implicit argument that animal welfare increases cost relies on unquantified assumptions; does not account for the increase in quantity and quality that comes from better kept pigs; and fails to properly account for the existing subsidies and financing costs associated with large scale corporate pig production. The media bias of the Guardian in favor of reporting solely on the workers’ struggle for wages and not their misleading rhetoric connecting ceramic workers struggle to pigs is apparent. If Chipotle can cut the costs of Huhtamaki bowls, they are going to do that regardless of however they decide to source pork.
Where in the article is there any information backing up the Huhtamaki worker’s inference that Chipotle favors pigs or animal welfare over people? That pigs are favored over people? Nowhere.
To be fair, Chipotle has cloaked itself in the manqué of animal welfare and prints its own nonsense disinformation on napkins that are clearly intended to convince everyone that Chipotle cares about the conditions of the dead animals whose flesh it serves up. Chipotle has been known to serve meat from animals confined in wretched conditions — as opposed to “happy meat”— and has no intention of switching to a vegan model. The reality is that “pigs over people” could not be further from the truth.
Further, the Guardian piece does not explore how even modest animal welfare steps by Chipotle — such as promoting vegetarian sofritos or suspending the worst meat suppliers in its chain — put people over pigs. This is among the most pernicious forms of journalism: uninquiring minds writing without questioning what is represented to an audience of un-emancipated spectators.
If the Guardian will not explore the animal interest issue raised in the caption; whether it would be a bad thing to favor pigs over people or at least consider the interests of pigs — which relates back to its caption — then one cannot expect they will nibble away at the overarching issue underlying it all: breeding animals for human consumption and whether those animals also have interests or even might be “people”. The media bowl, wrongfully, is empty of such concern.
John Maher is a lawyer, academic and author who lives in New York City with a pack of rescued dogs. He is attempting to change the structure of the human-animal relationship from one of rights to one of respect.