Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. has become the first national restaurant chain to remove all genetically modified ingredients from menu items served at U.S. locations, the company said Monday.
The Denver-based operator has been working to become entirely GMO-free since 2013 at its namesake Chipotle Mexican Grill chain, as well as its 10-unit sister brand ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen.
“There is a lot of debate about genetically modified foods,” Steve Ells, Chipotle’s founder, chairman and co-CEO, said 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 the implications of widespread GMO cultivation and consumption. While that debate continues, we decided to move to non-GMO ingredients.”
GMOs are common in the U.S. food system, according to Chipotle. Citing U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, the company said 94 percent of corn and 93 percent of soybeans grown domestically came from genetically modified strains in 2014. As a result, 80 percent of food consumed in the U.S. contains genetically modified ingredients, by some estimates, making it difficult for consumers to avoid.
Most of Chipotle’s GMO use involved soybean oil, which is used to cook chips and taco shells. It was also used in the adobo rub for grilled chicken and steak, as well as for grilling and sautéing. Corn and flour tortillas also used some GMOs.
The company has found a GMO-free supplier for its corn tortillas, and replaced soybean oil with sunflower oil and rice bran oil. Other GMO ingredients in tortillas were replaced with non-GMO alternatives, the company said.
Chipotle did not raise menu prices as a result of the move to non-GMO ingredients, but the company has said prices of beef dishes may increase this year because of high commodity costs.
“We are changing the way people think about and eat fast food, and that means cooking with the very best ingredients — ingredients that are free of additives — but still serving food that is affordable, convenient and, most importantly, delicious,” Ells said. “That’s really unusual in fast food, but that’s the quest we are on, and we continue to make progress.”
Chipotle’s announcement earned much praise on Twitter and Facebook.
In addition, Green America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting a “green economy,” said in a statement that Chipotle’s non-GMO stance is an important milestone in creating a safer and more healthful food system for all Americans.
“Increasingly, it is clear that consumers want food without genetically engineered ingredients, and have already rewarded Chipotle with increased sales for its growing non-GMO commitments,” the nonprofit said. “Chipotle has shown that it is possible for a large fast-food chain to adopt a more sustainable food supply. It is time that all food companies follow suit and move beyond genetically engineered ingredients and toward a more sustainable food system that benefits people and the planet.”
Meeting customers' demands
Other restaurant chains are also promoting GMO-free ingredients, saying it matters to their consumers.
MidiCi Neapolitan Pizza, a fast-casual concept scheduled to open in Los Angeles next week, uses GMO-free ingredients in its pizza. Austin-based Snap Kitchen touts its GMO-free tofu, and Starbucks uses Non-GMO Project-verified coconut milk.
But some say promoting “GMO free” is challenging without adequate product labeling.
Los Angeles-based Tender Greens, with 17 units, says it makes every effort to buy GMO-free ingredients — including sourcing GMO-free canola oil from Canada, because U.S. products cannot offer that guarantee — but it’s not always easy to know which products are, in fact, GMO free. As a result, Tender Greens co-founder Erik Oberholtzer urges consumers to support GMO labeling legislation.
“Because of current labeling practices, we cannot say for certain that every ingredient in our kitchen is free of GM seeds. If the labeling of such varieties were as transparent as ‘certified organic’ or ‘conventionally grown,’ we could base our decisions on this information,” Oberholtzer wrote in a blog on the brand’s website.
Research firm The NPD Group said in a recent report that 57 percent of American consumers say they are concerned about GMOs, an increase from 46 percent a decade ago.
Chipotle’s move comes as the 1,831-unit chain attempts to further differentiate itself from its competitors by focusing on ingredients. The brand has long focused on its Food With Integrity slogan, including meats raised responsibly without hormones or antibiotics, as well as organic and local produce where possible.
Last week, company officials said a new marketing campaign called “Collective Beauty” will spotlight the chain’s “whole, unprocessed ingredients.”
Only Chipotle’s tortillas include artificial ingredients, and with GMOs off the menu, its next step is eliminating those few remaining artificial elements, officials said. The goal is to use tortillas made the traditional way: with only wheat flour, oil, water, salt and starter.
Achieving this goal will be difficult and take time, officials said. Tortillas today are made quickly and require dough conditioners to give the consistency once achieved by a slow rising period.
Chipotle said it is working with its tortilla supplier and the Bread Lab at Washington State University to develop a new system that will allow dough to rise slowly and eliminate the need for conditioners.
“Eliminating the few preservatives will be slightly easier, but still a challenge simply because tortillas are difficult to keep fresh for long,” the company said.