The popular Mexican food restaurant chain Chipolte announced this week that they will no longer sell food containing genetically modified organisms (GMO) even though this will lead to a small increase in prices. This led Fortune Magazine to ask whether this was a decision designed to promote healthy eating or simply capture a larger segment of the market.
Chipotle this week made good on a 2013 promise to remove all genetically modified organism (GMO) ingredients from the food it serves in its restaurants. The decision can be viewed as a bet on the younger generations in America.
The Mexican food purveyor says it was the first national restaurant company to voluntarily disclose GMO ingredients in its foods in March 2013. But the company isn’t the only leader when it comes to talking about GMOs. That same month, grocer Whole Foods announced it would require all U.S. and Canadian stores to label products that contain GMOs. That label transparency requirement for suppliers goes into effect by 2018.
This is going to be tricky in terms of compliance. Though various activist groups have been pushing for mandatory labeling of food containing GMOs for years, the FDA has rejected the calls, saying there is no need for such identification. (For producers who wish to do so voluntarily, however, the FDA provides guidelines on labeling.) And how many foods does this apply to? There’s not too much GMO activity approved for use in meat, poultry and seafood so far, but for vegetable products it’s already ubiquitous. WebMD estimates that 80% of the corn and soybean products in the United States have been genetically modified and those processes have been approved by the FDA for decades. Those two are biggies because so many food products contain at least some component of corn or soy. We’re not just talking about the raw veggies themselves, but things like corn chips and sweeteners which show up in nearly everything.
Are GMOs safe? The FDA has allegedly investigated this question thoroughly and concluded that there was no significant risk. But there are still plenty of critics – including scientists – who claim that the GMOs pose risks. These include the possibility of new and increased allergic reactions in people, the rise of bacteria that’s more resistant to antibiotics and the possibility of the evolution of “super weeds” which can’t be controlled with conventional herbicides because they inherit these new genes from the altered crops. Personally I’m still on the fence on this one. These seem like important questions, and when you start tinkering around with something as complex as the DNA structure of a living organism, the rule of unintended consequences almost has to be in play.
But no matter how you view GMOs, that may actually have very little to do with Chipotle’s decision. What they’re doing here is selling the idea of healthier food more so than any improved lifestyle. Will people be willing to pay more for a “healthier” food option from a chain which isn’t exactly selling health food to begin with? That sounds a bit counterintuitive on the surface, but it might not be crazy at all. If options and imagery such as this didn’t sell, then Whole Foods Market wouldn’t still be in business. They are offering essentially the same products you can get in other markets, but their prices are way up there. They sell an image as much as they specialize in customized options.
It may be a long time before we know for sure if GMOs are a tremendous leap forward in farming or something that’s going to wind up making everyone sick. In the meantime, Chipotle is betting heavily on the chance that younger consumers are unhappy with the modified crops and will pay extra to avoid them.