Let’s face it, it’s good to be first, at least if you happen to be the first to do something worthwhile. In the ongoing debate about the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food, Denver, CO-based Chipotle Mexican Grill made what may turn out to be an important food history “first” in the United States.
The chain, which operates more than 1,450 restaurants across the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, and France, recently revealed that since March, they have labeled all the ingredients in their menu items, including GMOs. This makes Chipotle the first American fast food chain to voluntarily display the presence of GMOs in its products.
According to Chipotle’s spokesman, reaction to the identity of the chain’s ingredients has not affected sales. “If anything, it engenders more trust when you’re more forthcoming about the food you serve,” he said. Chipotle is going beyond labeling GMOs, they also intend to eliminate them from their ingredients as much as possible. Yet, the chain’s new labeling won’t win high marks with diners looking for total transparency since it is only available on the restaurant’s website, and not on their in-store menus.
With their vision of “Food With Integrity,” Chipotle clearly tries to “walk the talk.” In a news release this month that touted their plans to serve more than 15 million pounds of locally grown produce this year, the chain also reminded the public of their efforts to use ingredients from food that is naturally raised with respect for the animals, the land, and the farmers who produce it.
It’s too early to know how, or if, Chipotle’s GMO labeling will affect consumer health. Transparency in food labeling appears to help some American consumers make better choices. Results from the 2013 Harris Poll EquiTrend study named Subway the country’s favorite fast food restaurant for the eighth year in a row. “These study results show just how strongly Subway’s positioning around fast and healthy meal choices is resonating with consumers,” said Mary Bouchard, Vice President of Consumer Goods, Retail and Restaurant Research at Harris Interactive. Fast food giant McDonald’s, who invested in Chipotle in 1998 and fully divested in 2006, posted calorie counts on all their menus last year. Under the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), calorie content information for standard menu items is required to be listed for restaurants with 20 or more locations. In addition, restaurants must provide written nutritional information for customers who request it. Currently, state and local menu labeling laws vary widely across the U.S.
In spite of the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides, the public continues to be exposed to greenwashing. We may be in store for an onslaught of new campaigns as more retailers and restaurant chains look for ways to inform their customers about GMOs. As sure as death and taxes, there will be those consumers who speak out against Chipotle and contend that their GMO identification initiative doesn’t go far enough. For others, the restaurant chain’s action will be seen as a constructive approach to deal with a complex issue.