Chipotle Bans Credibility

Free of GMOs and scientific integrity.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Two big food companies took the unusual step this week of renouncing not their meals exactly, but some of their ingredients. Poultry behemoth Tyson Foods declared it will stop selling chickens raised with human antibiotics by 2017. And Chipotle, the booming "fast casual" Mexican grill, declared it would stop using GMOs -- plant foods grown from seeds that have been genetically modified -- in its tacos, burritos and other dishes. 

The idea is to appeal to customers’ desire for food that is healthy for both the people eating it and the environment. One of these moves actually responds to that appetite; the other is an unscientific exercise in pandering. Only by seeing the difference can consumers make sure they’re not being had. 

The effort to stamp out unnecessary use of antibiotics is, for the most part, an unalloyed good. The rise of so-called superbugs -- bacterial infections that have developed immunity to overused antibiotics -- is one of the greatest threats to human health worldwide. In the U.S., antibiotic-resistant infections cause at least 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths each year. 

Ideally, one day, Tyson will also stop pumping its pigs and cows with antibiotics intended for humans, because the superbug problem is related to the broader use of such medicines, not to chickens in particular. 

Chipotle, in contrast, has done nothing for the public good, and has only capitulated to anti-GMO fervor. Steve Ells, the company’s founder and co-chief executive officer, practically admitted as much. “I don’t think this is about GMOs being harmful or not being harmful to your health,” he said. “It’s really part of our food with integrity journey.”

QuickTake GMOs and Engineered Food

What, exactly, is our “food with integrity" journey? For two decades now, plant foods grown from genetically modified seeds have been eaten by hundreds of millions of people globally with no ill health effects whatsoever. And that stands to reason, because genetic modification -- the insertion of DNA carrying a desired trait into the genome of a seed -- is essentially a sophisticated version of the kind of hand-pollinating that farmers have practiced for centuries.

In this way, corn, soybeans and other crops have been made bug-resistant and more tolerant of drought. Genetically modified seeds have enabled farmers worldwide to use less pesticides and produce bigger yields. Already, more than 90 percent of the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are GMOs. Scientists and farmers are also developing genetically modified crops fortified with essential nutrients such as iron, zinc, vitamin A and folate. 

This progress is undermined by Chipotle’s bid to capitalize on the hidebound claims of the anti-GMO crowd -- that such plants are somehow freakish or will unleash uncontrollable “genetic pollution” throughout the environment. Unfortunately, the public has been uncommonly susceptible to these falsehoods: While 88 percent of scientists say it’s safe to eat genetically modified foods, only 37 percent of U.S. adults generally think so, and that gap between scientists and the public is larger than exists on evolution, climate change or childhood vaccines. 

Such confusion about science can be dangerous -- when parents fail to protect their children with safe vaccines, for instance, or policy makers fail to insure against climate change. If fear of genetically modified foods is entrenched as common wisdom, or used as the basis for regulations or trade deals, it could hamper efforts to improve agriculture everywhere. By pretending to care about its customers’ concern for health and the environment, Chipotle compounds the problem, demonstrating that its chief concern is for itself.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.