Chipotle is facing a new lawsuit over its recent GMO-free campaign. The California plaintiff, Colleen Gallagher, has accused Chipotle of false advertising for describing itself as the first national restaurant chain to be GMO-free when, “in fact, Chipotle’s menu has never been at any time free of GMOs.” Gallagher alleges that Chipotle has violated the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act through this misleading marketing and has tricked customers into paying extra for food that they falsely perceive to be more natural or organic or what have you. Per Reuters, her lawsuit “seeks class action status and unspecified damages.”
Chipotle says in a statement that the lawsuit is “meritless” and that Gallagher’s complaint is “filled with inaccuracies.” Chris Arnold, a Chipotle spokesman, points out that the company has “always been clear that our soft drinks contained GMO ingredients, and that the animals from which our meat comes consume GMO feed.” But, he continues, this “does not mean that our meat is GMO, any more than people would be genetically modified if they ate GMO foods.”
I’m just going to say it: Chipotle had this coming. When the chain first announced its anti-GMO push in April as part of its mission to sell “food with integrity,” we argued that dropping GMOs was the wrong way to go about it. The case against GMOs is full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud. For more on that, see Slate writer Will Saletan’s exhaustive longform essay from July. Court the anti-GMO crowd and you might gain a following among many health-focused consumers, but it also seems inevitable that your efforts will be insufficient to satisfy the most ardent GMO skeptics, who have pilloried everything from papayas to life-saving rice. Here I’ll just quote Saletan, who put it best:
The people who push GMO labels and GMO-free shopping aren’t informing you or protecting you. They’re using you. They tell food manufacturers, grocery stores, and restaurants to segregate GMOs, and ultimately not to sell them, because people like you won’t buy them. They tell politicians and regulators to label and restrict GMOs because people like you don’t trust the technology. They use your anxiety to justify GMO labels, and then they use GMO labels to justify your anxiety. Keeping you scared is the key to their political and business strategy.
Back in April, when Chipotle rolled out its anti-GMO initiative, Arnold wrote to me expanding a bit on the company’s decision. “We found that anyone looking to support their own perspective on GMOs could find scientific research to substantiate that perspective, which is one of the reasons the debate on the topic has been so contentious,” he said. “Given the wide range of opinions on GMOs in the scientific community … we decided to take a cautious approach to GMOs where we have the most control: in the ingredients we cook with every day.”
Read that however you like, but to me it sounds a lot like capitalizing on an admittedly unproven fear while it’s trendy. Chipotle isn’t the only one—Ben & Jerry’s and Whole Foods and Target and plenty of others have hopped on the anti-GMO bandwagon. So long as you’re worried, they’re happy to reassure.