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Chipotle Goes GMO-Free

Chipotle restaurants will no longer use products containing genetically modified organisms.

Chipotle Mexican Grill said Monday that it completed a task that had remained elusive for years: removing all food products derived from genetically engineered crops from its menu.

The Denver-based company is the first national restaurant chain to make the change.

The restaurant chain’s move is part of an overall effort to set itself apart from other fast food chains, using homespun advertisements and messages of wholesome, unadulterated food to boost its brand, says Katie Abrams, who studies food advertising and marketing at Colorado State University.

“There’s been some negative publicity in recent years with Chipotle’s nutrition,” Abrams says. “So one of their unique selling features is trying to add in these value-added ingredients to market themselves as superior to other fast food chains.”

The company’s executives had until this point told customers that most of the food you’d find along their assembly line is devoid of ingredients derived from genetically engineered crops. The sticking points came from the flours and oils that make up tortillas and fry chips, Chipotle founder Steve Ells told the New York Times.

To fry tortillas and vegetables, Chipotle relied heavily on soybean oil. More than 90 percent of the nation’s soybean crop is genetically engineered. It’s now switching out soy for sunflower, rice bran and non-GMO canola oil, according to the New York Times.

Going GMO-free is relatively easy for Chipotle, Abrams says. Most food served at the restaurant comes from crops like tomatoes and peppers, or from animals, with no genetically-engineered varieties on the market. Plus, the company has made no pledges to source organic meat, meaning the cows, pigs and chickens that become the meat in the burrito are likely still eating GMO feed.

Chipotle has had trouble in the past meeting its demand for meat raised under the company’s animal welfare standards. In January, Chipotle temporarily suspended serving carnitas at as many as 600 stores across the country after it found one of its suppliers failed to meet welfare standards.

Why the priority placed on ridding the company’s supply chain of oils and flours derived from genetically engineered corn and soy? Because, Ells has said, there’s a “lack of consensus” about the effects of genetically engineered crops, the Associated Press reported.

But a 2015 Pew Research Center survey of scientists with the American Association for the Advancement of Science showed a consensus on the safety of eating genetically engineered food. Eighty-eight percent of AAAS members said the foods are safe, compared to 37 percent of U.S. adults.

That gap in opinion shows just how profitable it can be for a company to market itself as GMO-free, Abrams says. Chipotle executives don’t have to draw the connection between GMOs and health, she says, consumers are quick to do that themselves.

“There’s a lot of research that shows that marketing foods with being organic, cage-free, no GMOs, have this halo effect where people just assume that they’re healthier nutritionally, even though they’re not actually healthier,” Abrams says.

Chipotle is hardly the first food company to try and market itself as a unique dining option with a claim of being GMO-free. In 2014, General Mills rolled out a non-GMO version of its popular Cheerios breakfast cereal. At the time General Mills executives acknowledged there was nothing to fear with genetically engineered crops.

Chipotle did not return a request for comment for this story.

As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.