In early September 2012, one intrepid reporter for the Bullblog announced to the world that Chipotle was coming to New Haven. The arrival was met with great pomp and at least one Twitter account, which showcased a certain Yale student’s passion for tortilla-wrapped, fast-casual fare (looking at you, @DanAtChipotle). Chipotle’s more than 1,700 locations in college towns and urban centers cater to a demand for convenience and tastiness that people love, myself included.
A lot of Chipotle’s success comes from their offering up what they call “Food with Integrity.” They like to think they provide an alternative to the restaurants that give fast food a bad rap by sourcing foods from local producers, cooking with “natural,” whole ingredients and mandating that meat suppliers prioritize animal welfare. In an industry where McDonald’s has been slumping after a year of declining profits, millennials have been flocking to companies that espouse sturdy values and social responsibility.
Chipotle’s vow last spring to completely rid their menu of genetically modified organisms has been one of the core tenets of their Food with Integrity mantra. To people in the know, this was a big deal; most corn and soy ingredients that are the building blocks of fast food in the United States are genetically modified. But this month, a class-action lawsuit out of the Bay Area challenged Chipotle’s claim to be “G-M-Over it,” characterizing the publicity campaign to nix GMOs as misleading. The suit argues that Chipotle still sells GMOs and that the restaurant uses its conscious-capitalism marketing to bilk people.
What does this suit tell us?
For one, it shows how terms like “GMO-free” and “natural” are hard to define. While the buffet of ingredients at every chain — the tortilla, the guac and everything in between — might not contain GMOs, the grain-based feed that your pig ate was likely GM, since nearly all animal feed is. That doesn’t necessarily make your carnitas GMO, though. And the high fructose corn syrup sweetening your Coke? That’s likely GM as well — legally speaking, beverages may be exempt from Chipotle’s claim that all food is GMO-free, so long as beverages are not considered “food.” If anything, the struggle to banish GMOs from Chipotle’s business activities is indicative of a food system dependent on genetically modified crops.
The case raises important questions about the ethics of food labeling and corporate social responsibility at large. By feeding GMOs to the pigs they raise, Chipotle is still complicit in an industrial food system that gives way to the gamut of environmental problems that come with large-scale agriculture. The altruistic aura surrounding the company’s impeccable branding is worth interrogating, and this lawsuit is right to point out that Chipotle’s use of intentionally vague words like “natural” — which have no solid legal definition — can confuse consumers and make them think they’re eating something they aren’t.
But Chipotle also has a track record that does show at least a little integrity. This past summer, upon finding out that a pork supplier was not up to the more stringent standards that Chipotle demands of its producers, the restaurant stopped serving pork at a third of its restaurants nationwide. On its website, the restaurant explained, “When faced with a choice between serving conventional pork in some of our restaurants or nothing at all, we chose to not serve carnitas at all.” The idea that a supplier that failed to comply with Chipotle’s standards flew under the radar is concerning to be sure, but it’d be more concerning if Chipotle swept this under the rug. By not serving anything at all, Chipotle served a strong message.
Chipotle is a business (guac costs extra), and their social responsibility is part of their bottom line. The Food with Integrity campaign is first and foremost an ad campaign, but it’s also having effects on the way food companies operate. Following the GMO-phaseout announcement, McDonald’s announced it would phase out sourcing animals raised with antibiotics. Flashy as the changes Chipotle make may be, they are still having a domino effect on the industry.
Perhaps a frivolous lawsuit in reaction to Chipotle’s claims, then, is misplaced. As far as food companies go, Chipotle is doing a better job than its competitors, and the sheer fact that they’re discussing these topics can provide case studies for competitors to emulate and for the public to critique. And at the end of the day, it’s important to remember that Chipotle is a business — the bottom line is the main concern. Animosity is better directed toward the flimsy rules and underlying structures that permit companies to administer unrestricted amounts of antibiotics or grow and sell GMOs in the first place.
Austin Bryniarski is a senior in Calhoun College. His column runs on Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .