Chipotle's upper management has been making bad business decisions for years and the burrito giant is suffering because of that. But it's this latest move that puts them firmly in the alarmist category and will likely drive many customers away. Chipotle's announcement on Monday that the chain would go GMO-free is a bold move that reveals more about their marketing strategy than their concerns about GMO food and a complete disregard for food science, farmers, their other suppliers and the customers they serve.
As I wrote for the Huffington Post last year:
Businesses also find profit in fear. In fact, an extensive new report by the nonprofit Academics Review found direct evidence that the organic food industry uses fear to promote the misconception that organic food is healthier and safer for human consumption. Specifically, the report found that the organic industry engages in "…widespread, collaborative and pervasive industry marketing activities…" that cause "…false and misleading consumer health and safety perceptions about competing conventional foods." Burrito giant Chipotle is another business that markets fear to sell food. Creating a series of catchy, animated online videos, the $3.2 billion company cast itself as the "small business" working to provide healthy food in a dystopian world ruled by vicious, earth-destroying "Big Food."
Of course, Chipotle doesn't really have a leg to stand on when it comes to claiming they offer healthy food. Their burritos typically come in around 1000 calories and some contain and entire day's worth of sodium (better get two waters with that burrito). And of course, the chain offers other no nos, like sodas, chips, guacamole, and booze.
So, in order to mollify potential food critics, Chipotle started claiming their high-calorie offerings are better than the other guy's high calorie offerings with their scarecrow videos and promises to use anti-biotic free chickens and grass-fed beef (which has led them to source beef as far away as Australia which is why they're holding off on their promise to source locally at the moment). Of course, this strategy is a standard marketing trick. For instance, in a typical grocery store, it's easy to find high calorie food with cheery and reassuring messages on the packaging. Take that carton of ice cream that claims to be "non GMO," and "wholesome," and "gluten free" which allows consumers to ignore the fact that the ice cream still has a fat content through the roof and a whopping 350 calories for a 1/2 cup serving.
Chipotle's no different and as with other companies who have tried to placate food activists, this latest stunt may backfire.
Consider the fact that most animals used for food are raised eating GMO feed (corn and other crops grown with GMO seed). Since Chipotle can't source completely non-GMO meat (animals that consume GMO feed cannot be labeled GMO-free), the company will still use protein derived from animals that are fed GMO feed. As such, those truly hysterical about GMOs won't be satisfied with Chipotle's partial removal of GMOs.
This leaves Chipotle delivering this muddled message to its consumers:
"GMOs are bad so we've taken GMOs out of our products…but not all our products like the meat, so I guess we're still serving GMO food." Goodness, that's a public relations message that would make Don Draper cry!
To those who are true blue anti-GMO believers, this won't be good enough and for those who heretofore didn't particularly care, they'll be left wondering: Is Chipotle's GMO-filled burrito really bad for me?
Perhaps when Chipotle returns to providing hungry Americans a filling meal without the lecture, their sales will rise. Until then, I'll be heading out for Chinese.