Many consumers think of Chipotle Mexican Grill as a healthy place to eat — or at least a healthy alternative to other fast-food chains. The brand often promotes its commitment to naturally raised meats and local produce in a bid to distance itself from places like Taco Bell and McDonald’s.
But it turns out that even at Chipotle, you can’t escape genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which were developed in the ’90s to increase farmers’ productivity but have been dogged by criticism from some health advocates and environmentalists. The chain recently became the first fast-food chain to label the ingredients it uses that contain GMOs; the list is deep in its website, not in stores. And 12 of the 24 ingredients listed on the site are affixed with a red “G” — indicating the presence of GMOs.
Chipotle’s executives agree that the ubiquity of GMOs on the menu is disheartening. The company has historically campaigned for legislation that would mandate the labeling of GMOs in all venues. A note on the site’s ingredient page says that the chain is trying to eliminate GMOs, but that it’s impossible to find reliable sources of corn and soybeans that don’t include them.[source]
I think this is a really weird and interesting case study, to be honest, in genetically-modified ingredient labeling. As always, I have thoughts and questions:
1) I think it’s pretty bold to offer your own company up as an opportunity to gauge consumer reaction to actually seeing what kinds of response you get to knowing which of your favorite ingredients contain GMO, or are byproducts of GMO feed. Chipotle has long championed the idea of labeling in their ingredients, so it’s nice to see them put their burrito where their mouths are. (It is no shock to me, however, that those labels are on the website; not on the menu inside the restaurant… or are they? Fill me in. I wouldn’t know.)
2) It should also go without saying – even though I’m going to say it anyway – that this could also very easily be Chipotle gauging whether or not their consumer base would be outraged enough for Chipotle to make a push towards organic, certified non-GMO ingredients… which would, inevitably, come with a price hike. Would consumers pay that hike? In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if this was merely Chipotle testing the waters to see whether the response is large enough to justify taking the plunge. It might be a challenge to find non-GMO corn or soy, but it ain’t that damned hard.
Chipotle is already pricey enough, but because they give you the “local, sustainable” spiel, you feel a bit better about the price (or you don’t care, you’re just there for the burritos.) Their consumers already have little problem with paying more than they do for, say, Taco Bell. What’s another couple of bucks to a burrito lover health foodie?
3) What happens, though, if this backfires? What happens if Chipotle’s choice to label ingredients doesn’t affect sales at all? Is that going to signal to legislators/GMO investors that the public doesn’t care about GMO if the food is good? Is it going to [be spun to] signal that there’s no need to “freak out” the public by labeling this, since Chipotle’s sales weren’t affected?
While it’d make sense that this would be a case for labeling, you’d be amazed by what spin can do.
4) With labeling losing the good fight in California, yet winning in places like Connecticut recently, do we think we’ll see progress in labeling at all? If you take a look at the list of ingredients on Chipotle’s website, a cursory glance will prove the obvious: everything with corn and cooked in oil has a nice little GMO button next to it. The rices, the tortilla chips, the flour tortillas, the steak, the chicken, the chipotle-honey vinaigrette, and the fajita vegetables: all tagged. What should we be doing to push progress on this matter?
Let’s hear it!