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Chipotle Is Now Completely GMO-Free

The environmentally conscious burrito chain takes a stand in the very unsettled debate.

Chipotle Is Now Completely GMO-Free
[Top Photo: Flickr user wandering youkai]

As part of its never-ending quest to remain the only “fast casual” chain restaurant that appeals to the Whole Foods set, Chipotle announced this week that its menu is now completely GMO-free.

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This doesn’t come as much of a shock. In 2013, the company started disclosing its use of genetically modified ingredients–and pledged to remove them altogether from its supply chain. Chipotle also sticks to organic ingredients when possible, and uses only antibiotic-free beef.

Antibiotic use in agriculture leads to antibiotic resistance, which is dangerous to farm animals and humans alike. But the risks of GMO ingredients, found in foods like soy oil (used by Chipotle to fry tortillas and chips, according to the New York Times) are less clear cut. GMO crops that are pesticide-tolerant have the obvious negative effect of encouraging more pesticide use, but crops that are drought-tolerant or contain extra vitamins may be more beneficial than not.

Flickr user Michael Saechang

Concerns about pesticide use don’t appear to be a factor in Chipotle’s announcement, however. The company has said in the past that its sunflowers, used in sunflower oil, are herbicide-tolerant as a result of natural cross-breeding–no genetic modification involved.

Chipotle knows that the evidence for its decision isn’t definitive. “There is a lot of debate about genetically modified foods,” says Steve Ells, co-CEO of Chipotle, in a statement. “Though many countries have already restricted or banned the use of GMO crops, it’s clear that a lot of research is still needed before we can truly understand all of the implications of widespread GMO cultivation and consumption. While that debate continues, we decided to move to non-GMO ingredients.”

According to a study from the Pew Research Center, 88% of U.S. scientists think that GMO foods are safe to eat, but only 37% of the public agrees. Chipotle’s decision is just good business.

Chipotle’s menu contains only 68 ingredients, and the only GMO foods that it used previously were soy (in flour tortillas and cooking oil) and corn (in flour and corn tortillas). Rice bran oil will now be used to fry vegetables, while sunflower oil will fry tortillas and chips. The biggest challenge, according to the New York Times, was moving to non-GMO flour tortillas:

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“The shortening had an oil in it that was derived from soybeans,” said Chris Arnold, Chipotle’s spokesman. “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.”

So Chipotle’s flour tortillas are now made with a non-G.M.O. canola oil, which costs more, and the company said last week that it might have to raise prices slightly this year.

The decision shouldn’t disrupt Chipotle’s supply chain too much, since its GMO ingredients were already minimal. Also, it’s not taking the extra-hard step of sourcing meat from animals raised on non-GMO feed (so yes, GMO ingredients are present on Chipotle’s menu indirectly).

But the company isn’t afraid to make sustainability-minded decisions that do cause disruption–last year, Chipotle ran out of carnitas after a supplier botched its requirements for humanely raising pigs. The chain still doesn’t have a stable pork supply.

Chipotle may be the only big restaurant chain to go GMO-free, but at least one grocery chain–Whole Foods–has already taken that step. By 2018, the grocery store plans to only sell GMO-free products.

Next up for Chipotle: removing all remaining additives from its tortillas.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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