Few wins are sweeter than when one person stands up to an enormous, international food chain and prevails. In this case, the one person is the blogger known as Foodbabe, aka Vani Hari, and, really, it’s not just her, since her whole community was in on it, and, actually, the taste is more south-of-the-border savory than sweet.
Last Friday, Hari received an email from Chipotle Communications Director and Official Spokesman Chris Arnold. The subject line was Tadah! And inside, there was something Hari and her readers had been requesting for months: a list of the ingredients in every Chipotle dish.
“I found it so surprising that they had marketing phrases like ‘food with integrity’ and they wouldn’t tell us what was in their food,” Hari tells TakePart.
She began investigating the restaurant in August of 2012, seven months ago, to get clear answers about what the company used in their foods. She says, between email, calling, and visiting three stores, she spoke to about six people before finding someone willing to give her real ingredient information, albeit behind the manager’s back.
“What I found was startling,” Hari says. “Most of their food was contaminated with genetically modified cooking oil, corn oil, and they were using genetically modified ingredients in their tortillas. Even in the black beans there was GMO soybean oil. You couldn’t even order vegetarian and avoid it. It was really unfortunate. Then, when I saw their flour tortillas’ package, it said that they use trans-fat. That’s crazy.”
Only a week after posting her findings on her blog, Chris Arnold from Chipotle tweeted at her and said he’d like to meet.
“It was incredible,” Hari says. “Because it says a lot for a company who wants to work with someone who has a bad experience and that they want to address it right away.”
Arnold offered a couple reasons for why Chipotle did not post ingredients on their website, including recipe secrecy and ingredient variance between states. But Hari wasn’t convinced. She asked why wouldn’t McDonald’s or Wendy’s or Burger King think the same thing? Why do they release their ingredients? And if different states have different ingredients, why don’t you just say that and list ingredients by state?
“It’s very clear. You can write it down, put it in a list, and post it,” she recalls saying. “I even offered to do the technology work for them because I’m a computer scientist. They didn’t take me up on that offer.”
After their meeting, Hari’s readers started a petition asking Chipotle to post their ingredients. In a short time, there were 2,400 signatures—1,400 over the original goal.
“I think they looked at that and they were working with me and sending me periodic messages the last six months telling me they were working things out and targeting January,” she says. “Honestly, I think they wanted to get some of their ingredients improved before they posted them.”
One of the goals of ingredient transparency is to motivate restaurants to improve their ingredients, and that’s already happened at Chipotle. “The best part,” Hari says. “Is that they took the genetically modified soy bean oil out of the black beans, so you can actually have a black bean salad with guacamole, and avoid GMO’s and avoid all the chemicals.”
Hari also points triumphantly to the sidebar of their new ingredient statement that says they’ve committed to eliminating hydrogenated oils, tortilla preservatives, and GMOs in the future.
Hari considers Chipotle’s change of heart her and her community’s second big win. The first was with a regional fro-yo chain called Yoforia. That’s a lot of success for a blogger who’s only been at it two years. (She has over 23,000 followers on Twitter.)
Her advice to those who dream of being food activist bloggers? “Really investigate your food,” Hari says. “Figure out what’s in it, and really figure out where it’s coming from, who’s making it, and who’s producing it. What are the chemicals or the ingredients in the food? Find out where those ingredients are and where they’re coming from, where are they used, are they chemically derived or natural? Are they genetically engineered? Ask all the right questions and then share that information with as many people as possible. Blogging,” she says, “is just sharing.”