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Chipotle Gets Sued Over Soda

September 2, 2015

Eighteen months ago I had an extensive Twitter conversation with Chris Arnold, the Communications Director & Official Spokesman at Chipotle Mexican Grill. It came on the heels of the brand’s announcement that it would be removing GMOs from the menu.

That was a great announcement, and it marked another step forward by the brand to continually improve the food it sells across America. But this begged the question: if Chipotle was ideologically opposed to GMOs, what would the brand do with its soda fountains? These highly profitable machines pump out GMOs all day long in the form of high fructose corn syrup.

I wrote about this in March of 2014 in A Sticky Point for Chipotle. The bottom line was that despite all the fanfare about ridding the menu of GMOs, Chipotle would still be making lots of money from knowingly selling GMOs to its customers.

For a brand that prides itself on its integrity, this felt wrong.

Well, guess what? Now Chipotle is being sued. You know why? Because the brand marketed the fact that it got rid of GMOs, but in reality was still selling GMOs. In theory, you might think I would support this legal action. But the case against the burrito maker is so flawed, I just can’t.

You know what a genetically modified organism is, right? Simply put, it’s when a gene from one thing has been inserted into a different thing, to achieve something you couldn’t produce using crossbreeding.

Maybe one day this genetic engineering technology will create crops that will save the earth or end hunger. The technology has great potential. But right now, it’s mostly being used to create massively dense monocultures of corn, soy, and canola that won’t die when you douse them with powerful herbicides.

But let’s not argue today whether GMOs are good or bad. I just wanted to be clear about what they are, and what they are not.

So Chipotle found a way to get GMO corn, soy, and canola ingredients out of the restaurant’s food. That’s huge, especially for a chain of Chipotle’s size. And for that, the brand should be commended. Bravo!

Here’s where the GMO foes lose me.  The suit alleges that a “Chipotle meal was, and remains, the very definition of a GMO meal.” And the reason they make this statement is because of animal feed.

The cows that make the milk which is used to produce Chipotle’s sour cream and cheese are raised mostly on pasture. However, their diets can be supplemented with GMO feed. The animals who gave their lives to be your meat may have also been given GMO feed too.

So here’s the million dollar question: have these animals become GMOs because they have ingested some transgenic feed? And is the milk that comes out of these animals genetically altered based on the consumption of conventional feed?

I’d argue against each of these.

GMO animals exist. They are a thing. And much like plants, scientists alter the genes of these animals to achieve a desired trait. But you cannot make one by feeding it GMO grains. That’s absurd on its face.

So is the idea of “Monsanto milk” that’s vilified around anti GMO circles.

Look. If you want your farmers to feed their cows on the untreated grasses and pastures of pristine farmland, I support you wholeheartedly. That’s the milk I want to drink, and frankly the milk I believe most people think of themselves as drinking when they buy conventional dairy at the grocery store. People buy into the marketing imagery, even if the realities are very different. Vote with your wallet and support those local farms that are making the milk you want.

But I have seen no scientific evidence to suggest that the milk which comes out of a cow fed GMO corn is any different from the milk of a cow that’s fed conventional corn. Sure, the one being fed GMO corn helps to prop up the transgenics industry and supports agricultural practices that some find distasteful or concerning.

But to make a claim that a cheese contains GMOs because the cow that made the milk that made the cheese once ate GMOs feels false and misleading. GMOs are created on purpose by the replacement of one gene for another. They are so specific and unique that GMO seeds are patentable. The products that come from GMOs are not GMOs. And even if science proves the milk made from cows fed GMO grains is different from that produced using organic grains, that difference would need to be defined with some other term.

Right. So Chipotle said it got the GMOs out of the food. And I fully believe that it did. Ultimately, soda isn’t food. It’s not. And I suspect the brand has enough wiggle room in its marketing communications to escape this lawsuit without harm. Which isn’t the same as saying it’s not going to cost the company anything. Lawyers are expensive. Even when those lawyers are in-house counsel.

In my original conversation with Chris Arnold, I mentioned the rewards Chipotle could claim by taking a stand against big soda. What I failed to mention were the potential negative consequences for keeping all of these GMOs in a store that had taken GMOs off the menu.

Consumers hate feeling deceived. And when a brand’s ideals start to eclipse its actions, it is not hard to see how consumers can be misled. I don’t think it’s too late for Chipotle to do the right thing and remove the soda fountains. Or if that’s too bold of a move, they could always place a giant “Contains GMOs” sticker on the machines.

Chipotle has done so much good work with organic food, local farmers, and sustainably produced meats, and pasture raised dairy that it’s incredibly impressive. The brand’s stand against GMOs is consistent with everything it has done up until now and continues to move these goals forward.

Yet Chipotle won’t budge on the GMOs in the soda fountain? Where’s the integrity in that?


One Comment leave one →
  1. September 2, 2015 10:09 pm

    “Maybe one day this genetic engineering technology will create crops that will save the earth or end hunger.”

    Have you not heard of golden rice?

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