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Chipotle's Non-GMO Policy Changes Everything

Chipotle's Non-GMO Policy Changes Everything

In the News

May 14, 2015

Originally published in Forbes.

Chipotle’s recent announcement that it will start serving food only made with non-GMO ingredients was not a surprise. After all, they have built their brand based on a consistent messaging plan that set them apart from their competition by positioning themselves as doing what is best for the land, farmers, animals, and of course, their customers.

Chipotle’s The Scarecrow video has 14+ million views, was picked up by countless media including NPR, Christian Science Monitor and Slate and has been called by marketing reporter Ann Hadley as “the most poignant moment in marketing” and even won an award at Cannes. But according to The New Yorker, Mother Jones and BuzzFeed, who recently published the 9 Disappointing Facts About Chipotle, statements made in the video short are not 100 percent true.

The restaurant’s announcement fast tracks the anti-GMO and GMO labeling debates as it brings the issue to the masses rather than just having it argued by foodies, intellectuals, pundits and NGOs. Television talk shows have featured the debate with man-on-the-street (or man-in-the-farmers market, to be more precise) interviews as well as one-on-one “expert” interviews – all underscoring the passion to be fearful of GMOs and reinforcing the lack of basic knowledge about GMOs (or even what the acronym stands for!).

My fear is that this move by Chipotle adds to the confusion and misunderstanding, and does little to help consumers understand the issue and the science.

Marion Nestle, PhD and professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, posted a brief comment on her blog: “No, this is not a safety issue. GMO corn ingredients were not making Chipotle customers sick. Yes, 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.” (For the complete post visit Food Politics.)

February 27th will go down in history as an important date in GMO history. In addition to Chipotle’s announcement, a federal court dismissed a motion filed by food industry trade groups to prevent the state of Vermont from implementing Act 120, which mandates GMO labeling on all foods beginning in July 2016. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) then filed an appeal. According to a report in National Geographic, food industry groups have spent more than $100 million to fund anti-labeling campaigns, no doubt an amount that will rise even higher as they ponder options from this ruling.

One of the key objections from the industry is that labeling GMO foods will incur significant costs. Chipotle has gone out of its way to say that there will be no price increases as a result of this change.

Some readers of this column may remember Sy Syms, of New York clothing store fame, who coined the slogan “an educated consumer is our best customer” – a lesson we should take heed from as we move into a new era of food: transparency, sustainability, and health with science to support the findings for each.

The NPD Group recently released their survey that found “over half of U.S. consumers express some level of concern about genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), but when asked to describe GMOs, many consumers are unclear.” Jimmy Kimmel was right!

Chipotle’s move will no doubt attract new customers to the chain’s restaurants and most likely bring in an entirely new customer base, not for the food, but because they align with the chain’s ethical positions. Some will like the food and come back for more.