I’d be vegetarian if it were cheaper

Written by tim


As a firm believer in economic incentives to improve the health of the environment and stave off climate change, signs like the one above always exasperate me.

I would find this funny if it weren’t so prevalent. It just seems odd that the vegetarian option is only ten cents less than the chicken, and forty cents less than the beef/pork option. Yes, you get guacamole with the veggie burrito. But the difference between avocados and meat in terms of climate change is significant. (I live in California, so it is not unreasonable to assume that both the chicken and the avocados were grown locally.)

This is why a climate bill that will price carbon into the economy is necessary (bumper sticker idea: “Internalize externalities”). I simply can’t believe that, given a full carbon accounting, the vegetarian burrito — which is otherwise exactly the same as the meat burrito — is only ten cents cheaper. Judging by the amount of meat they ladle onto each burrito, that ten cents buys you about half a bird.

The small price differential is especially surprising in light of the fact that this particular restaurant goes to lengths to source its meat more ethically than most. I can’t help but suspect that the pricing was set with consumer psychology in mind more than any underlying cost differences. After all, if you’re a vegetarian, what other options on the menu do you have?

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  1. Bob

    Shows that the human cost are the highest part of the meal, ingredients are a much lesser percentage.

  2. Ken Miller

    For some reason, in restaurant and supermarket marketing terms, if you care at all about what you put into your mouth you pay a premium. But the costs of meat (and dairy) are far more reaching than just the ten cents, which is really not a big deal compared to other places I’ve seen. I’m willing to pay for healthy food, and even sometimes order meat dishes without the meat when I have to (essentially paying for the meat anyway) to help the planet and my health. Read “The China Study” by T. Colin Campbell to find out the costs of animal protein to your health, ethics and the environment aside.

  3. Tricia

    I wonder if it’s because they sell so many more of the meat and chicken ones that they can under-price them. Veggie burritos don’t sell in near the quantity that the meat variety do.

  4. Jesse

    While I understand the point, this is not the greatest example. Nobody goes into Chipotle specifically for the vegetarian burrito. Somebody who is a vegetarian got dragged along, and are forced into buying the veggie one.
    A better example would be to compare the cost of food at a vegetarian restaurant vs. a non-vegetarian restaurant.

  5. Andy M.

    In-N-Out Burger has a similar pricing policy. Cheeseburger is $2.10 in Millbrae, CA, and the “grilled cheese” (essentially a cheeseburger without the burger patty) is $2.00. 10 cents for the beef.

  6. AK

    One of the main reasons any restaurant is able to sell meat for about the same price as vegetarian options is because meat is indirectly subsidized by corn subsidies. It’s not that vegetarian is just as expensive as meat, it’s meat is just as cheap as vegetarian. Meat would be a LOT more expensive if the government removed the corn subsidies it doles out to farmers who would otherwise lose money on farming corn. So, how does this keep the price of meat low? 95% of animals raised for food in this country comes from factory farms. Animals that are cooped up in tiny cages all their lives and fed corn. Take away the corn subsidies and the animals would now have to be fed grass (something they should be eating in the first place). This would solve a lot of problems related to unsustainable and environmentally damaging farming practices, human health, animal welfare, worker welfare, etc. The movie Food Inc. was released last week in NY, LA and SF and is being released nationwide this week. See this movie. If you care about your food and where it comes from, you should watch this movie.

  7. Susan Hume

    I beg to differ with Jesse. i am not a strict vegetarian, but I tend to choose the veggie option when it’s available. I often go to Chipotle to get the veg burrito — it’s delicious and I get to feel virtuous at the same time.

  8. Amber

    I know a number of people who go to Chipotle just for the vegetarian burrito – myself included. I do eat some meat, but prefer the veggie version and do feel that the avocado/guacamole is a bonus inclusion.

  9. Josh

    I think the real story here is a combination of AK (6) and Bob’s (1) statements. Yes, almost ALL the meat in this country is vastly under priced to the consumer, because of corn subsidies. But you’re also paying for a much less nutritious product than if you bought grassfed/humanely raised/drug free/heirloom varieties of the same meat. Your health is determined by the health of the things you put in your body and the health of the thing it puts in its body, and sadly with today’s industrial agriculture that chain fails every step of the way (corn produced in massive monocultures, in exhausted soil beefed up with artificial fertilizers, cows fed that corn when they’re incapable of sustaining themselves on it since they’ve spent thousands of years evolving to eat grass). However, Chipotle is doing pretty well trying to move away from that, so I think the other issue is a bigger factor here.
    The big point with the price difference is that it isn’t 10 cents out of 5.85. The majority of that price is non food costs (labor, overhead, advertising, profit). I’d wager that it probably only costs Chipotle between 1 and 2 dollars in food. Then, taking into account the guac, which is a pricey item (25 cents?), you’re looking at something more like $1.50 for a chicken burrito compared to 1.15 for a veg, so you’re now looking at something that costs 30% more, rather than the 6% that shows up on the menu (taking into account the 25 cent guac).

  10. Nathan Perkins

    Chipotle is an interesting example in that it is one of the few ‘faster food’ chains that is sincerely concerned with animal welfare. I would think the price of their meat is higher because welfare friendly farming generally costs more. Perhaps the higher costs of vege meals is offsetting the higher purchased costs of their meats.
    In the animal welfare research community, Chipotle was an early adopter and is highly regarded.

  11. Ed

    An interesting book is “The Fattening of America” by Eric Finkelstein and Laurie Zuckerman. Among their arguments is that when farmers began receiving subsidies to plant corn and soybeans (1) they planted more corn and soybeans; (2) the price of corn and soybeans fell compared to the price of fresh fruits and vegetables, whose growers didn’t receive subsidies; (3) people on a budget will generally choose the cheaper alternative; (4) prepackaged food takes less time to prepare; (5) the idea that Mom should be home all afternoon preparing dinner isn’t the norm anymore; (6) among the foods containing fatteners such as high fructose corn syrup (from corn) and hydrogenated vegetable oil (from soybeans) are French fries, soft drinks, donuts, cookies, and anything you put in the microwave; so (7) we are fat.
    (There are lots of other reasons for our collective obesity, but these seemed to pertain to this post.)
    The authors don’t mention that beef that is fed subsidized corn is part of the formula, but thanks for adding a piece to the puzzle.

  12. Ken Miller

    We can thank Nixon for those farm subsidies. He wanted food prices low to keep people happy. And fat, one can assume.

  13. Divajess

    I must disagree with you! As a vegan living in Texas, my vegan/vegetarian/flexitarian friends and I have been indebted to Chipotle. It is one of the only “fast food” places where we can order something other than a dressing-less salad.
    Now that the country is becoming more active about our environmental problems, I will happily pay the same for veggies as for meat; my focus now is on the environmental impact of my choices rather than the “fairness” of their cost. I will be ready to fight for price equity when there are meat-free options available everywhere.

  14. jamfhall1

    This is the same sham-scam as why does it actually cost more to substitute milk or orange juice for the coffee or soda when you order a “value meal”? Also, those fast-food cashiers practically harass me into ordering the “go large” or “king size it” for just 25 cents more! I don’t really want a quart of soda plus a pound of fries for just 25 cents more. Recently, I have begun to firm up my No Thank You. I’m sure I do not want to supersize my meal and yes I know it costs extra for that plastic bottle of milk. Please also give me a complimentary water! They really get upset when I announce I have a coupon or that want to order from the dollar menu because it’s actually cheaper. Thank goodness I can recycle the plastic bottle. From now on though, I think I’ll just start taking my own drink and wash the container when I get home.