Chipotle is “G-M-Over” allowing genetically modified ingredients in its food, announcing via an article in the New York Times that it has completely eliminated GMO ingredients in its US restaurants’ food menu as well as at its Asian restaurant concept, ShopHouse. And there are hints that Chipotle could expand the availability of GMO-free beverages in the near future.
As outlined on its website, the brand made a non-GMO commitment in 2013, when it started disclosing the use of genetically modified ingredients and removing them from its supply chain. Going GMO-free (apart from other brands’ soft drinks—more on that below) reinforces Chipotle as the fast-casual brand that best listens to customers’ food authenticity concerns.
It’s already using organic ingredients where possible, antibiotic-free beef and sustainable pork, a commitment that saw the company go without rather than serve sub-standard meat. Even so, shortages of its carnitas pork burrito haven’t hurt its bottom line, with the company just posting its first billion-dollar quarter. It’s not the only major food and beverage brand responding to customers’ health concerns, with PepsiCo last week making a pledge to remove aspartame from its diet soft drinks.
In addition to its social channels, Chipotle is communicating the new achievement with an extensive explanation on its website, titled “G-M-Over,” in addition to an updated FAQ section and what a spokesman described to brandchannel as “strong in-store signage speaking to the change.”
Some Chipotle fans and critics took to social media to ask why Chipotle isn’t applying the non-GMO rule to the beverages it serves, including soft drinks from vendors including Coca-Cola.
“Our initial focus was on the ingredients we use to make our food as that is where we have the greatest ability to effect change,” the spokesman commented. “We are certainly interested in things like fountain drinks and are doing some testing on that,” including root beer from Maine Root, which uses Fair Trade Certified organic ingredients, in some Denver area restaurants.
Its website concedes that there’s no scientific consensus on the long-term implications of GMO cultivation and consumption, but as founder and Co-CEO Steve Ells told the New York Times, “I think we all know we’d rather have food that doesn’t contain” genetically modified ingredients.
In pointing out which of its ingredients had used GMOs, Chipotle pointed to soybean oil, used to cook chips and taco shells, and in a number of recipes such as its adobo rub for grilled chicken and steak, and for cooking both on its grills and for use in saute pans. Corn and flour tortillas also included some GMO ingredients.
In scrubbing its supply chain of GMOs, Chipotle suppliers have been planting non-GMO corn varieties to meet its need for tortillas; replaced soybean oil with sunflower oil (to cook chips and taco shells) and with rice bran oil (for other recipes and uses). The brand also said it is actively developing new recipes for its tortillas, which are the only food items on its menu that include any artificial additives, as it outlines on the Tortilla Journey section of its website.
“Just because food is served fast doesn’t mean it has to be made with cheap raw ingredients, highly processed with preservatives and fillers and stabilizers and artificial colors and flavors,” Ells told the Times.
Of course, this puts pressure on other fast casual and quick service brands to step up, and adds another page to the industry-leading Chipotle playbook for courting consumers who keenly share the company’s values and views.
Over the last several months, Chipotle has been struggling to provide enough pork shoulder for its carnitas meat—which the storytelling-driven brand outlines in the Quest for Pork section of its website—because a major supplier failed to meet its standards, but the revolving lack of carnitas hasn’t dented the chain’s sales or financial results.
Aided by brands such as Chipotle and many non-GMO CPG brands, as well as retailers such as Whole Foods Markets, GMO ingredients certainly appear to be headed for eventual extinction in the US. Social media is rife with scary stories about experimentation on animals with GMO foods and allegations about their fundamental danger to human health. European countries are far ahead of the United States in attacking GMOs.
But there remains strong, scientifically-based support not only for the intended efficacy of resistance against drought, pests and disease, and higher yields than conventional crops, but also for the complete safety of GMO foods which, Chipotle said, comprise 94 percent of corn and 93 percent of soybeans grown in the United States. And there are passionate pro-GMO activists as well who point out that GMO foods are practically the only hope for solving the challenge of hunger in many emerging nations such as Bangladesh.
To GMO backers, anti-GMO sentiment is as hysterical and irrational as “climate change denial” is to those who believe there’s a scientific consensus on man-made global warming. In fact, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) showed a greater gap between scientists and the general public in their views on GMOs than on any other scientific controversy, as noted by a New York Times op-ed columnist this past weekend who says he has “converted” to GMOs even though he agrees with the “consensus” on climate change.
While 88 percent of AAAS scientists surveyed by Pew agreeing it was safe to eat foods with GMOs, only 37 percent of the public did—a gap in perception of 51 points. Meanwhile, the gap on climate change was 37 points, and on childhood vaccinations just 18 points.
But Chipotle cites its own survey of scientists, and certainly a core of anti-GMO activists that agree. Its website noted a 2013 survey of “about 300 scientists from around the world who signed a statement rejecting the claim that there is a scientific consensus” that GMOs are safe for human consumption. And those are the scientists that Chipotle is siding with.
Bigger picture, this move is about winning over customers who are seeking purpose-driven brands who deliver on their promises, and differentiating itself from competitors. And as the messages floating around social media today hail, being the first major restaurant chain to commit to all GMO-free food creates a halo around the brand—one that other competitors may find casts a harsh light on their own behavior.