Food Policy

Chipotle Treats Customers Like Idiots

The burrito chain stokes bogus GMO fears and tries to profit from anti-biotech propaganda.

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A Chopotle burrito
tales of a wandering youkai / Flickr

In April, the high-class Mexican food chain Chipotle announced that it was going GMO-free. That is, the company would no longer use ingredients derived from modern biotech crops.

Chipotle says it sells "food with integrity." The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines integrity as "the quality of being honest and fair." In making this decision, alas, the company is being neither honest nor fair about the safety and environmental benefits provided by modern genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Chipotle offers three "key reasons" for rejecting genetically modified ingredients. The first: "We don't believe the scientific community has reached a consensus on the long-term implications of widespread GMO cultivation and consumption." As evidence for this statement, the company notes that "in October 2013 a group of about 300 scientists from around the world signed a statement rejecting the claim that there is a scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs for human consumption." Three hundred whole scientists!

So who are these GMO rejecters? The cited statement was issued by a notorious anti-biotech claque, the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility. Signers included people who have made whole punditry careers out of anti-biotech rhetoric, such as Charles Benbrook, Vandana Shiva, and Gilles-Eric Seralini. Benbrook regularly (and incorrectly) claims that planting biotech crops has boosted pesticide applications; Vandana Shiva lies about biotech crop failures causing farmer suicides in India; Seralini produced a bogus study in 2013 that claimed that rats fed biotech corn developed breast cancer. (The study was later retracted.)

The plain fact is that every independent scientific body that has ever evaluated the safety of modern biotech crops has deemed them safe for human beings to eat. This includes the Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and many more.

Chipotle's second "key reason" for rejecting modern biotech ingredients is that "the cultivation of GMOs can damage the environment." As its sole evidence, the company cites a study estimating that pesticide and herbicide use increased by more than 400 million pounds as a result of growing biotech crops. That study was conducted by none other than the aforementioned Benbrook, and it was funded by leading anti-biotech groups, such as the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Consumers Union, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Organic Center. Instead of citing activist estimates, why not cite actual data?

In May 2014, the National Agricultural Statistics Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued its comprehensive report Pesticide Use in U.S. Agriculture. The agency found that herbicide usage peaked at 478 million pounds in 1981—a decade and half prior to the introduction of the first biotech crop varieties—and fell to 394 million pounds in 2008. So instead of the massive increase in herbicide spraying claimed by Benbrook, the USDA actually reports a modest decline. Insecticide applications peaked in 1972 at 158 million pounds, dropping to 29 million pounds in 2008.

It's worth noting that the insecticide DDT accounted for 11 percent of all agricultural pesticides used in 1972. Since biotech crops can protect themselves against insect pests, there is far less need for farmers to spray them. In November 2014, German researchers reviewed 147 agronomic studies and similarly reported that "on average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37 percent, increased crop yields by 22 percent, and increased farmer profits by 68 percent."

What really damages the environment? Growing low-yield crops, because that means more land must be plowed down instead of being left for nature. The organic farming preferred by many anti-GMO activists produces lower yields than conventional farming. A 2012 review in the journal Nature found that "overall, organic yields are 25 percent lower than conventional yields."

The USDA's latest figures show that about 408 million acres of land in 2007 were devoted to growing crops. If the Nature study is accurate, going organic would mean plowing up an extra 100 million acres of land to produce the same amount of food. That's an area bigger than California and Indiana combined.

Chipotle's third "key reason" is that the restaurant "should be a place where people can eat food made with non-GMO ingredients." Why? The company states, "In our quest to serve the best ingredients, we decided to remove the few GMOs in our food so that our customers who choose to avoid them can enjoy eating at Chipotle." Basically, this is a marketing ploy aimed at appealing to customers who have been bamboozled into thinking that biotech is bad. The customer is always right, even when they are wrong.

Companies are free to educate their customers or, like Chipotle, to try to take advantage of their ignorance. Many are choosing the second course. Several retailers have now introduced organic and "natural" food products to supply the market based on ignorance. Target's Simply Balanced brand, for example, debuted in 2013. Simply Balanced organic flour goes for $5.34 per five-pound bag, while the same amount of Gold Medal All Purpose unbleached flour sells for $2.49. Simply Balanced Mac & Cheese goes for $1.29 for six ounces, compared to Kraft's Deluxe Mac & Cheese for $1.12. Sixteen ounces of Simply Balanced organic spaghetti sell for $2.29, while Barilla regularly goes for $1.34 and Target's non-organic Market Pantry house brand can be had for $1.24. Simply Balanced organic marinara sauce costs $3.34 for 24 ounces; Barilla sells that much for $1.99. Simply Balanced organic peanut butter costs $5.99 per pound, whereas Jif Crunchy peanut butter goes for $2.20. Even Jif's "natural" crunchy peanut butter is just $2.49.

A similar recent price comparison between Kroger's Simple Truth organic products and the chain's conventional products finds that your best grocery-store dollar bet is on regular foods. Simple Truth organic milk cost $4.09 compared to $2.99 per gallon for regular milk; Simple Truth whole grain bread was $3.69, whereas the price for Brownberry whole grain was $3.19 per loaf.

While organic products are more expensive, they provide no extra taste or nutrition benefits. A 2009 review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at 162 studies comparing conventional and organic crops. The study reported that "there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced food-stuffs." Similarly, a 2012 Annals of Internal Medicine review evaluated 240 studies and found that "the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods."

Chipotle hopes that marketing their decision to eschew ingredients from modern biotech crops will be good for their bottom line. But will it? Perhaps not.

Consider the case of non-GMO Cheerios. In 2014, General Mills announced with great fanfare that it was dropping biotech ingredients in its iconic Cheerios cereal. The move has apparently had no effect on sales. CEO Ken Powell told the Associated Press that the company was "not really seeing anything there that we can detect" in terms of a sales lift. He further opined that GMOs aren't really a concern for most customers.

Also in 2014, Boulder Brands, maker of Smart Balance Buttery Spread, announced that it too was going GMO-free. After eight months, CEO Steve Hughes admitted, "We have not seen a widespread lift in our sales due to the non-GMO launch."

Still, dupes of anti-biotech propaganda are evidently buying some quack non-GMO products. The Natural Society health website reported earlier this year that verified GMO-free food sales reached $8.5 billion in 2014 and that demand is growing faster than many conventional food products.

Private companies like Chipotle have the right to try to sell whatever they want. But they cannot claim that they are acting with integrity.

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  1. Getting hard to mince words, isn’t it? Chipotle makes it their business to know who their customers are, and their customers are… Obama voters, not Reasonoids. Leftist bullshit is lucrative, libertarianism isn’t.

    1. I think there are plenty of restaurants that cater to Bible-thumping grease eaters, so Chipotle is only balancing things out.

    2. Chipotle treats its customers like idiots because most of them are idiots..

  2. Alas, the country’s underwear is doomed to be drenched in blood and diarrhea before we see a new dawn of liberty and enlightened self interest.

  3. You know, you can only get away with treating your customers like idiots when they actually are idiots.

    Or, in my case, apathetic about the issue. I just want a damn burrito and am not going to hunt for a Chipotle replacement when the Chipotle is conveniently-located.

    Now, if some other chain can become prosperous and sell a tasty GMO-packed burrito for less, and the restaurant locations are convenient to me, I’ll buy from them.

    BTW, Chipotle is “high-class” like a t-shirt with a tuxedo printed on it is high-class. It’s a fast food restaurant, for Pete’s sake.

    1. A better choice would have been “high-priced” as in comparison to say Taco Bell.

  4. Anyone who spends $7.00 on a nickel tortilla filled with 2 pounds of rice with a tiny piece of meat hidden in the middle is already an idiot.

    1. Virtually all restaurant food is priced far higher than the sum of its ingredients. At least at Chipotle, you get to observe and direct the construction of the burrito. It’s not uncommon for people to tell the employee to adjust the amounts of the various ingredients. If I’m gonna spend $7 on a lunch, the only thing that really matters was whether I was satisfied with the outcome.

      1. Wow! You were able to witness the construction of a burrito first-hand? I’ve only heard the stories of such culinary feats. Perhaps Subway can follow suit with a sub filled solely with shredded lettuce. Non-GMO lettuce of course.

        1. Non-GMO Lettuce – in a beautiful, natural brown! It may even match the bread!

        2. Your point?

      2. Dude, every taco stand and taqueria in the country lets you observe and command the construction of your burrito. It’s not unique to Chipotle. Also their meet tastes like dog food.

        1. In the Midwest, taco stands and taquerias are not on every corner. It’s frequently Chipotle or nothing. I don’t find anything wrong with how Chipotle tastes. My money. Not your problem.

  5. Since Chipotle’s not the government and they stand to make profit off of gullible rubes…then bravo to them!

    What’s the saying – fools and their money are soon parted? Well, anybody with a lot of dollars and believes in scary stories like “GMOS KILL!!” should be parted with their money by a smart private company. I’m willing to bet Chipotle probably still uses GMOs (how can they not, if they use corn-based products? Corn’s whole existence is due to genetic modification).

    I commend Chipotle for wanting to make millions of dollars off the sheeple. Now, when they go to the government trying to regulate stuff, then they cross the line into evil.

    Also good news? If 300 scientists think that climate change isn’t bad, then that should be enough!

    1. The problem isn’t necessar with the fact that they are lying to their customers, (it is a problem in general, but I don’t mind seeing a few rubes get taken) it’s with the perpetuation of the anti-gmo idea.

      This technology can help feed millions but dumbasses keep blocking it because they believe gmo tomatoes will start killing people.

      1. Commenting on this site using an iPad is a total clusterfuck.

      2. I agree with you, really. I was making fun of the idiots more or less.

        Most of the anti-GMO crowd is too dumb to know that even much of their “organic” food is modified. Corn can’t even exist without it. Most of the grapes today had to be spliced in order to survive the cooler temperatures (cooler now than they were in the middle ages). Apples are another.

        It’s a pretty murderous ideology taken to its logical end, I agree. I do think most of the people who are terrified of GMO are gullible babies taken in by government or advocacy groups and their scare tactics. They just don’t see step #5 – billions of people die. Just like with climate change legislation – sure, there are nice parks and trees, too bad billions had to starve to death to get there.

        (Hmm. Is it all connected? Are there some Diocletians afoot propagating all this stuff to go back to the good old serf-based latifundia system?)

      3. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

        1. Killer GMO Tomatoes.

          1. Yeah you laugh ut just this morning I was attacked by a killer tomato.

            I was in the garden thia AM with one of my hands encumbered by a cup of coffee when the micro agression began. It came at me out of the blue and it’s only shortcoming was my immense weight advantage.

            What could have ended in tragedy, did, for the tomato.

            It ended it’s life sliced and then blessed with a dribble of extra thick balsamic vinegar.

          2. The people who made Attack of the Killer Tomatoes were prescient. . .

    2. Thank you, chmercier. My first thought when reading this article was “Holy fucking shit…find something worthwhile to complain about.”

      If Chipotle’s customers are willing to pay up for nonexistent health benefits, then they are giving their money away voluntarily. Obviously there is enough GMO skepticism out there to profit from, and there isn’t anything wrong with that.

      Bailey should save his energy for stuff that is actually outrageous…like governments that ENFORCE their views (silly or not) onto UNWILLING subjects.

  6. Panera Bread?aren’t they into all of this kitchy, nitchy pure bs too?

    1. I don’t know. What I do know is that eating at Panera Bread will vastly expand your waistline. I love them, but stay far away for my health’s sake.

  7. I do not see that defending establishment science in controversial areas is a libertarian position. It would be libertarian to give each individual the right to reach his own conclusions. The authority of “Science” is used by authoritarians to silence dissent. California has just passed a law forcing certain vaccinations. Is this libertarian? To think that just because something is called a vaccination it must be safe is delusional. Perhaps GMO’s are safe, I don’t know. But label the packages and let the market decide. That sounds more libertarian to me.

    1. Totally agree. The notion that food labelling is authoritarian is anarchic nonsense. Considering that it is IMPOSSIBLE for a consumer to actually know whether anything they buy on their own is GMO or not (a nice bit of cronyist capture of the regulator), it’s a good thing for a bulk food purchaser to actually decide that they will do something that the consumer cannot on their own. If that brings business to Chipotle, good for them.

  8. So many biotech geniuses. Keep eating McDonald’s my friends.

  9. “Barilla sells that much for $1.99.”

    Pft. Amateurs.

    De Cecco is master of all.

    I kid to bust.

    Meh. I only eat Chippy’s when I’m in the USSA (the extra ‘s’ stands for socialist, no?) and quite frankly I can do without it if need be. If they want to cynically jump on this anti-GMO nonsense because they see it as a smart business ploy then good on them. However, I wonder if there’s more at work; notably they actually believe in their own anti-science gibberish.

    Get the table ready Chick Fil-A, Rufus is coming!

  10. TRy convincing the organic crowd of anything.

  11. LMFAO! You govt employees commenting on here are just too damn funny. Love and trust the FDA do ya? You jackasses sure like touting all their “studies.” Well sure! Everyone knows how much “libertarians” love, and trust, government agencies and their multi-million dollar studies carried out and funded by the company that makes the GMO. Well sure they do! *coughbullshitcough* Everyone KNOWS that there could never ever be any financial agenda on the part of the FDA….right? OH HELL NO! We “libertarians” trust them….it’s in our charter for god’s sake!!

    You people have no brains, morals or principles….pretty much like a dog. I mean, you idiots say we need GMO’s so we can have healthier crops to produce MORE food. Even though your employers (da gubmint) PAY farmers now NOT to grow food? Uh huh…..bullshit.

    Poor, poor Reason. Which govt agency is running this show now btw?

    1. There are government woodchippers heading your way right now!

    2. Is there a Bizarro Reason I’m unaware of?

    3. Bullet, it’s not Reason. It’s this douchebag Ronald Bailey. He makes the same statist/corporatist arguments in the mandatory vaccination debate.

    4. Are you trying to say GMO’s are bad for people’s health? IF so, then prove it rather than simply making bald assertions.

      1. scientific consensus says man made global warming is happening, yet you say that is not true.

    5. Dogs have both principles and brains.

  12. “Basically, this is a marketing ploy aimed at appealing to customers who have been bamboozled into thinking that biotech is bad. The customer is always right, even when they are wrong. Companies are free to educate their customers or, like Chipotle, to try to take advantage of their ignorance. Many are choosing the second course.”

    Chipotle’s singular responsibility is to its shareholders via the indirect route of its customers. If there are a bunch of anti-GMO whackadoos roaming the fruited plain, Chipotle has a responsibility to their shareholders to cater to said whackadoo beliefs.

    This is like arguing that the manufacturers of church pews are promulgating a destructive, anti-reason position. Yes? And? It’s not the business of businesses to dictate to customers what their beliefs should be.

  13. The pesticide argument noted in here is seriously flawed. We are researching the GMO Controversy right now for a documentary at The Walk a Mile Project, and I just delved very deeply into the whole pesticide usage question for our last podcast. First of all, looking at 1981 is irrelevant, since 1996 is when GMOs entered the picture. Second of all, those numbers are way off, because you’re only looking at certain types of pesticides, not the whole picture. We break it down, and actually include links to the numbers (something I’m not seeing on this page), particularly in relation to the key herbicide involved in the majority of GMOs, which is glyphosate — see The Rise of Glyphosate:

    http://www.walkamileproject.co…..oncerns/2/

    I wouldn’t jump to ANY conclusions on GMOs at this point…

  14. The plain fact is that every independent scientific body that has ever evaluated the safety of modern biotech crops has deemed them safe for human beings to eat.

    Interesting this thing…scientific consensus. You agree with this, yet when the scientific consensus says global warming is real, you disagree.

    1. You don’t need a weatherman to know the wind ain’t blowin’ the way he says it is…or do you?

  15. Maybe chipotle (properly pronounced “chi-pot-el”) should change their line to “Food with fake integrity by a company with no integrity.”

    Personally, I’ve never seen the draw for chipotle. Their restaurants are bare-bones affairs with little in the way of comfort and their food is so-so. They spout a lot of feel good nonsense for the low-intelligence of their customers to feed on. Those customers are the same idiots who actually believe organic food claims.

  16. Help me understand what makes this article or this concern “libertarian.”

    Help me understand what makes eating grafted apples the same as eating corn soaked in herbicide. (Help me understand why most of you knee jerk jerks seem not to understand what GMO really is all about)

    And help me understand why a multinational corporation’s patent and ownership of a life form gives most of you almost no pause whatsoever, either economically or socially.

    A lot of lumping going on here, by a bunch of clever, even funny writers. Smart folk. Who just happen not to know much about the topic.

    1. You are a dumbass luddite.

  17. “The plain fact is that every independent scientific body that has ever evaluated the safety of modern biotech crops has deemed them safe for human beings to eat. This includes the Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and many more.”

    Are you fucking kidding me? The only studies that tout the safety, are those performed by or paid for by the biotech firms responsible for the GMO toxins being foisted off on us as food.

    Independent studies result in GMOs being banned and the fields burned to limit ecological damage.

    1. Another dumbass luddite.

      1. Projection isn’t healthy. You might want to quit.

  18. They would forbid customers carriage of protective personal arms too, which leaves me curious as go the following. You, a customer abided by their wishes, and while eating at one of their restaurants, was injured by a bad guy, who didn’t abide by the restaurants policy. Does the Chipotle chain accept it’s responsibility??? Does it know what responsibility is???

    1. Good thing cops would never eat there… no donuts.

  19. I can’t believe I’m reading this nonsense at Reason.com Who, except governments, Monsanto and major food corporations doubts the carcinogenic quality in GMO foods?

    I applaud Chipotle for their stand against GMO. They are acting with integrity. It is Mr Ronald Bailey that is lacking integrity on this issue.

    How much integrity does it take to understand that GMO foods are not natural and therefore detrimental to people’s health, who consume them? Yes DDT was terrible, as is MSG, Aspartame, and a multitude of other ingredients currently in our food.

    Mr Bailey’s price comparisons show that he just doesn’t get the issue. Price comparisons have no bearing on one’s health. Talk about lack of integrity.

    How did this article get posted on Reason.com?

    1. Please hold your breath for the next two hours. Your CO2 is killing Mother Gaia.

    2. How did this post get past your common sense? GMOs are no more or less carcinogenic than any other human modified lifeform–which is pretty much any domesticated plant or animal. The only documented detriment is possible allergic reactions related to the modified genes.

  20. Genetic experimentation has been going on for a long time (I’m using an understatement similar to the one used when naming “The Big Bang”).

    GMO’s include organisms altered in a variety of ways. To assume they all safe or all unsafe, is equally foolish. Even “natural” foods can be fast or slow poisons.

    If the GMO modification changes a food to be more healthful to humans, why not? (But I think their goal is to make the plant survive–not the human.) Central planners and monopolies are making these changes; this adds new risk to the food supply. Risk that had been reduced through thousands of years of experimentation and cultural lessons. Worse, consumers can’t see with the naked eye that the food has been altered.

    Pesticides and herbicides (read the labels) kill things. If my food is altered to survive these poisons, what’s to tell me that farmers aren’t using more poisons because of it? What are these substances doing to the bacteria in my gut? To my cells? To my digestion?

    I love free markets! Chipotle is offering me what I want and doing it without government mandates. I’m willing to pay more for that. I’d pay more for a GMO plant if it benefitted me, but I’m not so foolish as to trust that GMO’s are all good.

  21. if Chipotle are way off the mark on this decision then please riddle me this: WHY have the European Union, China )of all places) most of Central America, and significant parts of Africa banned the cultivation and/or importation of GMO foods? Ya think THEY might know something our big ag and big pharma are trying to hide?

    And WHY have Monsanto spent tens of millions working to defeat labelling laws here in the USA? If GMO were all that peachy and wonderful, WHY would they be so vigourously opposed to merely labelling foods containing such products as “contains GMO foods”?
    Look at the debacle ongoing over High Fructose Corn Syrup, here in the USA the near ubiquitous sweetener. Despite being clearly proven to be VERY unhealthy for humans, and despite its having been used for decades now, more and more consumers are awakening to its dangers and are simply refusing to consume it. In respons,e a number of manufacturers and producers have either abandoned that product, or have brought out products not containing the substance. And knowledgeable comsumers are buying it in increasing quantities.

    Despite this, HFCS still enjoys the protection and approval of the FDA….. which has been bought by the sweetener industry. Do ya think something similar could be happening with GMO foods?

    1. Have you reasearched the characteristics and dangers of glyphosate, the root chemical in Roundup, which was billed as “environmentally safe”, “biodegradable”, “harmless”? Its been proven to be both a carcinogen and a neurotixin. It does NOT break down in the soil, but accumulates in it. And levels of it are steadily increasing in our food supply. Nearly every GMO plant is so developed to be less or not affected by glyphosate. So, GMO and glyphosate go hand in hand…. and are not healthy. I’ve looked into it, if this publication desire to maintain its apparent level of professionalism and accuracy you should do some work along those lines, rather than bashing Chipotle for going “GMO Free”. Knowing they have done, I now feel far more comfortable patronising them.

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