The fast food burrito chain Chipotle, which advertises "food with integrity," became the first restaurant chain in the United States to label genetically modified ingredients in its food in March 2013.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have sparked concerns about potential human health effects and confirmed environmental effects. Chipotle has 1,450 restaurants as of June 2013 and $2.7 billion in annual revenue, so the labeling is no small potatoes.
To much of the world, Chipotle's labeling efforts would simply be law-abiding: 64 countries have mandatory labeling of some or all genetically engineered (GE) food, according to the Center for Food Safety. In fact, some countries -- such as Zambia, Benin, and Serbia -- have banned both importing and growing GMOs all together. Turkey is the first country to label animals fed GE products, and its laws banning GMO imports have led to arrests and the seizure of thousands of tons of products. Whole Foods is the only other U.S. chain to move in this direction; it announced earlier this year that it would begin labeling in 2018.
Chipotle Website "Ingredients Statement" Informs Customers
The Chipotle website contains a full "ingredients statement" about all of its menu items. One of the data points, denoted by a "G," is whether or not each ingredient is genetically engineered. As of June, the company had not noticed any change in sales since the disclosure. "It's not a concern to us that we're going to lose business over this," company spokesperson Chris Arnold told BusinessWeek. "If anything, it engenders more trust when you're more forthcoming about the food you serve. Any downside there may be ... is going to be eclipsed by the upside with being transparent."
A natural foods blogger, Josefa of Natural Well Nest, beat mainstream news sources to the punch when she reported in May 2013 that Chipotle had posted information about GE ingredients in its foods. As she pointed out, all of the GMO's used are in the form of corn or soy -- that's because 93 percent of soy and 85 percent of corn are GE (by acres planted), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And because many items contain soybean oil or various forms of ground corn (for tortillas, etc.), there aren't that many items totally free of GMOs. The company says it recently switched its fryer oil from soybean oil to sunflower oil, however, and is working to eliminate more GMOs.
Advocates Ask for More Transparency
The Organic Consumers Association has asked its over 850,000 members to urge Chipotle to list its GMO ingredients prominently on its menu boards rather than just "buried on the restaurant chain's website." However, according to BusinessWeek, there are no plans to do so because of the boards' "limited real estate."
Chipotle is far from a perfect company. Its Minneapolis locations were subject to picketing in 2011 when it fired six hundred employees for working without immigration documents, according to The Nation. Its lack of paid sick leave for its employees led to an outbreak of a gastrointestinal norovirus that sickened over 500 people when a single sick employee without paid leave came to work and handled food in Kent, Ohio in 2008. Policy Matters Ohio reported that the outbreak cost the community between $130,233 and $305,337 in lost wages, lost productivity, and health care costs.
Still, Chipotle's decision to label GMOs is being lauded as a display of effective consumer activism, in light of voters' efforts across the country to pass state-by-state legislation mandating GMO labeling.