Chipotle Goes GMO “Free” and Chooses the Path Less Traveled (By Fast Food Restaurants)…Again

Image from Chipotle

On Monday, Chipotle announced that it would no longer be serving GMO ingredients in its restaurants.  With that statement, Chipotle became the first fast food restaurant to make such an effort, surpassing its monumental achievement two years ago of being the first fast food restaurant to voluntarily disclose the presence of GMO-ingredients in its food.  The announcement has garnered much press as I am sure everyone was expecting (see the New York Times, Food Politics, Huffington Post, the Washington Post, you get the idea).  Both sides of the GMO-debate have come out to similarly laud and criticize the effort.

I have to say, after allowing a bit of time for the dust to settle, I am entirely supportive of Chipotle’s decision to the point where I actually went there to buy lunch today.  Perhaps the best way to articulate my support is to put it in relationship to some of the criticisms.

The Washington Post chastises Chipotle for buying into the fear-mongering cash-cow that the anti-GMO movement has created:

In nevertheless validating the panic that has led to limits or bans on GMOs in developing nations, Chipotle says “we decided to remove the few GMOs in our food so that our customers who choose to avoid them can enjoy eating at Chipotle.” In other words, the anti-GMO lobby has scared people, and burritos can be sold by pandering to these fears.

The article continues, saying that studies conducted related to the effects of GMO-consumption demonstrate that there is in fact, no evidence to suggest that the consumption of GMOs relates to human health concerns.  By avoiding these facts, this article argues in summation that:

…no one should confuse any of these companies’ behavior with real corporate responsibility. That would require companies to push back against the orchestrated fear of GMOs instead of validating it.

What this article fails to take into consideration in its criticism of Chipotle’s GMO-free path, is in fact two of the big reasons as to why Chipotle pursued this path in the first place: consumer demand and environmental concerns.  As Marion Nestle of Food Politics so accurately states, this is not about Chipotle’s GMO-products making people sick.

…this is a matter of trust.  Chipotle customers are offended that GMO foods are not labeled and that they have no choice about whether to eat them.

Assuming that consumers are inherently “afraid” of GMO products cheapens and demeans the complexity of the GMO debate, and the ability of consumers to think critically about the products they choose to consume.  As someone who avoids GMO products, my main reason for doing so does not stem solely from a fear that these products will inherently hurt me.  It has to do with the environmental damage related to GMO production, the treatment of animals who are fed GMO-based feed, and the notion that as a consumer, I have the right to know what I am consuming.  Ironically, most important to me are the environmental and animal treatment concerns, both of which do not immediately affect my health.

Image from Chipotle

So I have to say, the Washington Post gets it wrong.  The GMO-debate is complicated and replete with sub-issues that are being debated in and of themselves.  So to criticize Chipotle for trying to make a buck off of the anti-GMO brigade is off base and criminalizes a business for trying to make a profit by catering to its customers.  Instead I think we should show support for this effort while continuing to demand change of the fast food industry.  Chipotle has taken the initiative to make the first step, but we should be asking for more accountability, more transparence, and more change from the industry as a whole.

For a more honest criticism of Chipotle’s announcement, head to NPR’s blog “The Salt.”  Which raises concerns about some of the remaining GMO concerns that make Chipotle seem hypocritical.  From soda, to meat, to sunflower oil, there are still huge issues with the Chipotle empire that need to be ironed out.

The New York Times amongst other sources painted a more comprehensive picture of what it was actually like for Chipotle to make the shift towards non-GMO ingredients.  Taking into consideration the state of the food industry as it is now, Chipotle undeniably had a hard time not only finding sources for their non-GMO ingredients, but also sufficient quantities of the ingredients that they need.  By choosing the road less traveled, companies committed to using non-GMO ingredients face shortages which could threaten to eliminate products completely from a menu.  Chipotle’s commitment to the cause can be found in their unrelenting search for adequate suppliers, and the time they invested in achieving their goal of a menu free of GMOs.

Unfortunately, nobody is perfect.  Chipotle unabashedly states along with its announcement, that beverages, dairy and meat still contain GMO products.  Moving away from soybean based oils and corn tortillas and chips was a big enough feat, but the battle for organic, non-GMO, and humanely treated meat is another story.  Finding producers that humanely treat their animals has already been problematic for the company, much less finding enough organic meat to meet demand:

Organic meat would be a much tougher problem. Catherine Greene, an economist with the United States Department of Agriculture, calls the supply of organic beef “extremely limited.”  As in, last time USDA ran the numbers, in 2011, it was 0.3 percent.  Even when demand goes up and price follows, supply doesn’t immediately follow that. Farmers have to use organic practices for three years before they can sell the product as organic.  “That’s a pretty long time to commit to using organic production systems without tapping into the organic premium,” Green says.  That’s a big disincentive, and when farmers do switch, there’s a long lag: the three-year transition period, plus the two years or more it takes to actually raise a cow for slaughter.

So while Chipotle’s efforts are not without its flaws, at the end of the day, I give it all my whole-hearted thumbs up.  I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from all that I dug up on Chipotle’s new development, which comes from Chipotle CEO Steve Ells:

We want to make the old fast food model irrelevant.  We want to make great ingredients and classic cooking techniques accessible to everybody.

High five, Chipotle.

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