GMO-free burritos: Chipotle 1st fast-food chain to ditch genetic-modifications

Reuters / Lucy Nicholson
Chipotle has become the first fast-food chain to ban genetically modified foods, known as GMOs, in all foods served in its restaurants. The Mexican fast-casual chain has removed non-organic soy and corn from its tortillas and other menu items.

"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," the company wrote on its website.

Back in 2013, Chipotle started showing which items contain GMOs. On Monday, it removed those items altogether from the 68 ingredients ‒ including salt and pepper ‒ served at its 1,831 restaurants.

“This is another step toward the visions we have of changing the way people think about and eat fast food,” Steve Ells, founder and co-chief executive of Chipotle, told the New York Times. “Just because food is served fast doesn’t mean it has to be made with cheap raw ingredients, highly processed with preservatives and fillers and stabilizers and artificial colors and flavors.”

“The vast majority of our ingredients don’t come in a GMO variety, and we use lots of whole, unprocessed foods, so it was easier for us to do,” Ells added.

The move required getting rid of genetically modified corn and soy, as well as byproducts of those ingredients.

“One reason customers love Chipotle is that we use great ingredients. For us this means great taste, but it also means that the food we serve should be made with ingredients raised with care for animals, farmers, and the environment,” the company said on its website. “We’re doubtful that the GMO ingredients that used to be in our food meet these criteria.”

Removing genetically engineered corn was easiest, the NY Times reported, because Chipotle’s primary tortilla supplier was already producing non-GMO corn flour in small amounts, and it agreed to increase its production.

GMO corn made up 93 percent of all corn grown in the US in 2014, the company said on its website, including 76 percent of corn that is both herbicide resistant and pesticide producing, with the remainder engineered for only one of those traits.

Replacing soy was more difficult because GMO soybean oil was used in Chipotle’s fryers and in the shortening used in its flour tortillas. In 2014, 94 percent of the soy grown in the US was engineered for glyphosate resistance. The organic soybeans already used to make the tofu for Chipotle’s Sofritas are not genetically modified, like all certified organic ingredients, the company noted.

Different oils have different smoking temperatures and infuse food with different tastes, so switching can have a vast effect on flavor. Chipotle solved that problem by using two different oils: It uses sunflower to fry its chips and tortillas, while a non-GMO rice bran oil is mixed into rice and used to fry fajita vegetables.

The flour tortillas posed a bigger problem for Chipotle.

“The shortening had an oil in it that was derived from soybeans,” Chipotle’s spokesman Chris Arnold told the NY Times. “We won’t use lard for tortillas because of our vegan and vegetarian customers, and we can’t use palm oil because of the environmental impact.”

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Chipotle is replacing that shortening with a non-GMO canola oil in its flour tortillas. However, that oil costs more, and the company said last week that it might have to raise prices slightly this year.

The restaurant chain has benefited from Americans’ efforts to eat simpler foods they perceive as healthier. While its same-restaurant sales continue to rise at a more rapid pace than more traditional competitors like McDonald’s Corp., some Wall Street analysts worry Chipotle’s growth rate is cooling, the Wall Street Journal reported. Its quarterly revenue, reported last week, increased 20 percent ‒ below analysts’ expectations, sending shares down about 5 percent.

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Chipotle called for independent studies of GMO foods that evaluate the long-term effects of of widespread GMO cultivation and consumption, noting 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. It added that the majority of testing that has been done so far has been paid for by companies that produce GMO seeds.

“The World Health Organization recently designated Glyphosate as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’,” Chipotle said on its website. “Given the concerns surrounding these types of GMOs and the chemicals associated with them, we felt it was particularly important to seek out non-GMO ingredients when possible.”

GMOs may still sneak into Chipotle’s food supply, however. It noted that many of the beverages sold in its restaurants contain genetically modified ingredients, especially corn syrup, “which is almost always made from GMO corn.”

It also raised the issue of GMO animal feed, but added that the company hopes to solve this problem in the future.

“[I]t is important to note that most animal feed in the US is genetically modified, which means that the meat and dairy served at Chipotle are likely to come from animals given at least some GMO feed,” Chipotle said. “We are working hard on this challenge, and have made substantial progress: for example, the 100% grass-fed beef served in many Chipotle restaurants was not fed GMO grain—or any grain, for that matter.”

Despite moves by McDonald’s ‒ which ditched antibiotic-fed chicken in March ‒ and other fast-food chains to become healthier in the face of plummeting sales, it is uncertain whether they will follow Chipotle’s lead, according to the NY Times. The increased demand for non-GMO products has made them more expensive and difficult to obtain in the amounts that big businesses need, which can lead to supply shortages.

Chipotle has already faced that issue more than once. It has run short on beef from time to time, and has been facing a shortage of pork since December because one of its suppliers had failed to meet Chipotle’s standards for raising pigs.