Chipotle Slapped With Lawsuit for Allegedly False GMO-Free Claims

The first chain restaurant to declare its menu free of genetically engineered ingredients still serves items that are either made with or raised on modified crops.

(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Aug 31, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

If you’ve eaten at your friendly neighborhood Chipotle at any point since late April, there’s likely been a sticker on the store window heralding “A Farewell to GMOs.” Indeed, if you ate vegan and opted to not drink a soda alongside your organic tofu Sofritas burritos, there would have been no genetically engineered ingredients in your meal.

However, if you stray from eating vegan or drink a soda, then you will either be eating foods that came from animals raised on GMO feed or consuming GMOs directly in the form of high-fructose corn syrup.

A lawsuit filed in California on Monday is seeking class-action status and alleges that Chipotle’s GMO-free claims amount to false advertising, entitling all California consumers who have eaten at the chain since the announcement to financial reimbursement.

“Chipotle’s advertising in its stores should have accurately informed customers about the source and quality of its ingredients and should not mislead consumers that they are serving food without GMOs when in fact they are,” Laurence D. King, one of the attorneys working on the case, said in a statement.

The language of the lawsuit seems to push the issue beyond credible labeling and into a critique of brands capitalizing on consumer fears through greenwashing.

“The potential health impact of GMOs has been the subject of much scrutiny and debate within the food and science industries, but Chipotle knows customers attach an unhealthy, negative perception towards them,” the suit reads, alleging that the chain attempted to capitalize on squishy consumer sentiment.

From eschewing antibiotics and harsh confinement practices for the animals that supply its meat to sourcing many ingredients from local farms, Chipotle has long trumpeted ethical food practices as part of its brand—but it hasn’t issued a detailed response to the lawsuit’s many claims.

Unlike many companies trying to appeal to shoppers who would rather not eat GMOs, Chipotle hasn’t sought out any kind of third-party verification. Packaged food companies hoping to cater to consumers who would like to avoid GMOs have opted either to certify products as organic with the USDA—which, among other things, means they cannot contain genetically engineered ingredients—or met third-party standards established by private labeling efforts such as the Non-GMO Project. While Whole Foods became the country’s first certified-organic grocery store in 2003, that standard, set by Quality Assurance International, still allows the chain to sell an array of nonorganic and genetically engineered products. The Non-GMO Project has a restaurant verification program, but according to the website, it is being revamped.

While Chipotle has been triumphant over its disavowal of GMOs in its consumer-facing branding—in addition to the Ernest Hemingway allusion to A Farewell to Arms, the chain has also told customers that it is “G-M-OVER IT”—the information on its website is more nuanced.

“Chipotle was the first national restaurant company to disclose the GMO ingredients in our food, and now we are the first to cook only with non-GMO ingredients,” its explainer reads (emphasis added), which is an important distinction. At many locations, the chain does offer grass-fed beef, which is raised without any grain feed, genetically engineered or otherwise. But it claims that overall, there is “not much it can do about genetically modified feed given to animals.”

So perhaps the April announcement would have been better parsed in terms of Joan Didion than of Hemingway: “Slouching Towards No GMOs” rather than “A Farewell to GMOs.”

Either way, Chipotle does not see itself being in the wrong. “Generally speaking, we do not discuss details surrounding pending legal actions,” Chris Arnold, the company’s communications director, wrote in an email, “though we do plan to contest this.”