Why Whole Foods and Chipotle’s anti-GMO campaigning has lost my business

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A steak burrito is arranged for a photograph with a drink and bags of chips at a Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. restaurant in Hollywood, California, U.S., on Tuesday, July 16, 2013. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. is scheduled to release earnings data on July 18. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A steak burrito is arranged for a photograph with a drink and bags of chips at a Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. restaurant in Hollywood, California, U.S., on Tuesday, July 16, 2013. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. is scheduled to release earnings data on July 18. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

I live in a fairly typical suburb outside of Chicago – about 50,000 people, lots of families, good schools and many strip malls. From Target to Starbucks to PF Changs, I can pretty much be anywhere in less than five minutes.

One strip mall houses three of my (former) favorite places: Orange Theory Fitness, Chipotle and Whole Foods. I could squeeze in my work-out, shop at Whole Foods to pick up food for dinner and treat myself to Chipotle about once a week for lunch (eating twice as many calories as I worked off). As a cooking teacher, I shopped at Whole Foods a few times a week. Chipotle was hands-down my daughters’ favorite fast food restaurant; if we had an evening when there wasn’t time to make dinner, it was always their first choice. It was also our go-to place on Saturday afternoon if Friday night had been particularly festive.

Now after my work-out, I defiantly walk right past Whole Foods and Chipotle. I can see my sweaty, red face reflected in the Chipotle window that now proclaims (falsely) that it’s GMO-free. I stroll through the Whole Foods parking lot on the way to my car and head to Trader Joe’s and Costco instead.

Here’s why: Up until a year ago, I would’ve been hard-pressed to tell you anything about GMOs. I might’ve been able to identify the words behind the acronym, but nothing about the technology. The first time I read a substantive article about GMOs was in the Wall Street Journal last August in a profile of Monsanto COO Brett Begamann. The piece was entitled, “Meet Mr. Frankenfood.” As a newbie to the issue, I recall wondering, ‘what’s the big deal?’ Why would anyone oppose using science to make our food better?

I miss my naiveté.

In the last several months, I’ve become an accidental activist on behalf of GMOs (you can read about how this happened on the Genetic Literacy Project website if you’re curious). What began as my criticism of the elitist food movement—celebrity chefs, food writers, organic industry executives—has morphed into a personal crusade on behalf of biotechnology because it holds such promise to help agriculture, the environment and, most important to me as a lucky and grateful American mom, millions of malnourished children around the world.

My reaction to anti-GMO advocacy ranges from frustration to exasperation to outrage. And I’m not just talking about my friends and family members who might have a negative opinion largely rooted in lack of knowledge. I’m talking about people who know better, hypocrites who choose to vilify this biotechnology to make a buck or get favorable press coverage. Folks like celebrity chef Tom Colicchio or food writer Michael Pollan, who often openly cheer for the failure of international genetically-engineered crops like Golden Rice or Bt brinjal—nutritionally enhanced food that could save or improve billions of lives of struggling children while they have no worry whatsoever whether their own children will get their next meal. Or organic industry gazillionaires like Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Stonyfield Farms, who blames GM crop production for every ailment from miscarriages to autism. Or crank alternative health supporters like Mike Adams or Joseph Mercola. Or Dr. Oz—don’t get me started.

The last thing I will do is spend money at a store or restaurant that colludes with GMO foes. My last visit to Chipotle occurred a few days before Chipotle made its specious—and widely panned—announcement about a “Farewell to GMOs”. I won’t step foot in there anymore. The company’s holier-than-thou PR move proclaiming “Food with Integrity” struck me as the ultimate cynical marketing tactic: feign integrity while you mislead customers to believe that your food is GMO-free when it’s not (plenty to read about that ploy on the GLP website and my National Review Online piece entitled “Gimmicky Marketing Obfuscations”).

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Even worse was Chipotle’s spin that it was responding to the demands of its customers. That really made me laugh aloud. I’ve spent a lot of time at Chipotle and I’d say the average customer is a 17-year-old male who wears long gym shorts, stares at his iPhone and has a penchant for $10 burritos. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stuck behind the high school baseball team when barely coherent sophomores take their sweet time deciding between beans or rice. It’s nearly impossible for me to believe these same dudes are taking time away from Snapchat or ESPNs website to email Chipotle with their concerns about genetically engineered tortilla chips.

So no more barbacoa tacos for me. And while I was happy to make the sacrifice, my daughters reacted with great drama after I informed them of my decision: any future purchases at Chipotle would have to be with their own money and they’d have to catch a ride there (kinda hard for 10 and 14-year old girls). After a few weeks of pleading, they backed off and don’t seem to miss it as much as they thought they would. In fact, my teen daughter just told me she was “over it.”

Whole Foods was a bit trickier. While we have plenty of grocery stores in my town, the convenience of Whole Foods would be tough to beat. I didn’t go there to buy organic, but I did like their fresh meats and the wine/cheese/olive section (dinner!). But when I learned the grocer would label all GMOs by 2018, I was done.

In a statement announcing the plan, Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb said “we are putting a stake in the ground on GMO labeling to support the consumer’s right to know.” Whole Foods promises that its “GMO transparency initiative includes all of the food we sell,” which seems a tad hypocritical now that the company is under investigation by New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs for falsely labeling food and overcharging customers in the process. Sounds like they have other labels to worry about, doncha’ think?

The bottom line is that Whole Foods isn’t so much in favor of labels: it’s opposed to GMOs. The company’s website reads like a vociferous anti-GMO group, with an entire guide devoted to “how to shop if you’re avoiding GMOs” and referring to products with “GMO risk ingredients”—an odd description since every major science organization has found GMOs safe or safer than organic foods, which are linked to hundreds of illnesses and even deaths each year because of bacteria laced foods. Labeling genetically modified items is akin to branding the product with scarlet letters to scare off customers and entice them to buy organic goods instead (just as they planned). My wine/cheese/olive purchases are now made elsewhere.

My suburban life now goes on without Chipotle or Whole Foods. I’m certain the CEOs aren’t losing any sleep over it, but one less order of guacamole and one fewer purchase at the olive bar is all I have to express my defiance. Making these very minimal sacrifices – and teaching my daughters that sometimes you have to stand for principle – is a minor victory for me and, maybe, for GMOs.

Julie Kelly is the owner of Now You’re Cooking in Orland Park, Illinois. She is a cooking instructor and food writer, but her biggest job is being a mom. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @Julie_kelly2.

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