Acton Institute Powerblog

Burrito Bomb: Anti-GMO Chipotle Needs a Business Model Reality Check

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Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal reported on startup Intrexon Corp.’s efforts to eradicate pests responsible for inflicting “billions of dollars a year in lost revenue and crop-protection expenses.” The pests in question are diamondback moths that wreak havoc on cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower crops, and the efforts involve genetically modifying females of the species so they die before reproducing. WSJ writer Jacob Bunge adds that a GMO potato developed by J.R. Simplot Co. that develops fewer black spots from bruising recently was granted U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. Further, says the journalist, Arcadia Biosciences Inc. “is developing varieties of rice and trees that can grow in salty and dry soils.”

Readers may conclude these developments are cause for confetti, balloons and public celebrations on every street in the United States and throughout the world. However, backlash against genetically modified organisms continues unabated without any scientific evidence to support the alarms raised by what Bunge identifies as “consumer and environmental groups.”

I would add to Bunge’s list the “religious” shareholder activists at As You Sow and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. Both groups gin up unwarranted GMO fears and spread disinformation while advocating in their proxy shareholder resolutions for GMO labeling, public disclosure of company lobbying and political contributions, and calls to avoid using GMOs altogether.

Funny how the non-scientists at AYS and ICCR claim a “scientific consensus” for catastrophic, human-caused climate change but can’t identify one single peer-reviewed study to support their claims GMOs pose risks to the environment and consumers. Except it’s not funny at all.

The nuns, priests, clergy and other religious of AYS and ICCR are free to toil in their gardens devoid of GMOs and pesticides when they’re not jet-setting to Paris climate-change conferences and tootling around in their little bus to Occupy Wall Street protests and campaign conventions. But good luck with feeding the world’s population organic kale and arugula grown one acre at a time.

Appearing on the same page as Bunge’s article is a report by Julie Jargon, “Chipotle Pulls Back on Local Ingredients.” Trust me, I take no pleasure in the recent pain experienced by Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., however much it points out the wrongheaded agenda of ICCR and AYS. Writes Jargon:

Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. has touted its use of local ingredients and fresh produce to help differentiate it in a crowded fast-food market. Now a string of disease outbreaks is forcing the once-scrappy upstart to act more like the big chains it long has derided.

Chipotle expects to lower its use of locally sourced ingredients and is centralizing the preparation of some vegetables as it seeks to shore up food safety following an E. coli outbreak that sickened 52 people in nine states and a norovirus episode in Boston. The burrito chain hopes the steps can help it regain consumers who have shunned its outlets, eroding sales.

Health officials haven’t been able to identify the source of the E. coli outbreak but say produce was the probable cause.

Chipotle co-CEO Steve Ellis has promised investors the chain will take steps to address contamination issues while still providing fresh, locally grown ingredients. However, one can anticipate a drop in share value as costs increase for consumers. I congratulate Ellis for sticking to his guns and protecting his company’s brand. Henry I. Miller, however, is less forgiving. In a Forbes essay titled “Chipotle: The Long Defeat of Doing Nothing Well,” Miller brings out the long dining knives:

The title of this article, which was inspired by a line from poet John Masefield, seems apt: Chipotle, the once-popular Mexican restaurant chain, is experiencing a well-deserved downward spiral.

The company found it could pass off a fast-food menu stacked with high-calorie, sodium-rich options as higher quality and more nutritious because the meals were made with locally grown, genetic engineering-free ingredients. And to set the tone for the kind of New Age-y image the company wanted, Chipotle adopted slogans like, “We source from farms rather than factories” and, “With every burrito we roll or bowl we fill, we’re working to cultivate a better world.”

The rest of the company wasn’t as swift as the marketing department, however. Last week, about 140 people, all but a handful Boston College students, were recovering from a nasty bout of norovirus-caused gastroenteritis, a foodborne illness apparently contracted while eating Chipotle’s “responsibly raised” meats and largely organic produce.

And they’re not alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been tracking another, unrelated Chipotle food poisoning outbreak in California, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington, in which victims have been as young as one year and as old as 94. Using whole genome sequencing, CDC investigators identified the DNA fingerprint of the bacterial culprit in that outbreak as E. coli strain STEC O26, which was found in all of the sickened customers tested.

Miller isn’t finished castigating the chain – not by a long shot:

Outbreaks of food poisoning have become something of a Chipotle trademark; the recent ones are the fourth and fifth this year, one of which was not disclosed to the public. A particularly worrisome aspect of the company’s serial deficiencies is that there have been at least three unrelated pathogens in the outbreaks–Salmonella and E. coli bacteria and norovirus. In other words, there has been more than a single glitch; suppliers and employees have found a variety of ways to contaminate what Chipotle cavalierly sells (at premium prices) to its customers.

These episodes reveal several things. First and foremost, Chipotle is a company so out of control and negligent that it repeatedly endangers the public. But they also illustrate something important about food safety: Although the crops, meats and other foods produced by modern conventional agricultural technologies may not bring to mind a sentimental Norman Rockwell painting, they are on average safer than food that reflects pandering to current fads.

Ouch! One wonders what ignominies Miller would inflict upon ICCR and AYS for their attempts to force the Chipotle business model on the rest of the world. Forget it, Miller, that’s my turf; my moth-free, pest- and bruise-resistant and bountiful turf.

Bruce Edward Walker has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. Most recently, he was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2007 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past three years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Midland, Mich., with his wife Katherine.

Comments

  • morphd

    It’s interesting that while most people would agree with the new being being superior to the old in nearly all aspects of life – electronics, transportation, medicine, energy, human rights etc., when it comes to the way their food is produced, they seem to want to dial back to some quasi-mythical time when things were supposedly better? They say things like: “we don’t trust scientists who tell us GMO food is just as safe as conventional food in terms of human health or the environment, or that trace levels of pesticides pose little or no risk – they must be conspiring with evil corporations like Monsanto who don’t want us to know the truth because it’s all about making money…”.
    Then they get into their late-model cars, manufactured by large, profit-making corporations – and involved in tens of thousands of deaths every year – and drive to their next destination.

    • Debbie Owen

      I don’t trust companies who are willing to spend millions of dollars to hide their products in our food supply, if they were so great they would be proud to label them. Besides, genetically engineering food plants to be able to withstand repeated applications of herbicide or to produce their own pesticides can’t be healthy for anyone.

  • StopGMO

    Chipotle’s is doing a great job and their food is quite good, I had it yesterday. They are being sabotaged, is what I strongly believe. And as for Henry I. Miller, he is just a pro-GMO, biotech mouthpiece and idiot!

  • Rob Bright

    Great… another biased, pro-industry post full of anti-scientific assumptions, and unsubstantiated pro-GMO talking points. As usual, these propaganda pieces accuse anyone who has concerns with GE technology, as being “antiscience,” when it has been well-established that many scientists have had ongoing concerns with the technology since it was introduced. (Too bad the writer can’t separate their own personal biases from actual science and doesn’t seem to have the journalistic integrity to be objective…)

    • MCR

      It’s the same approach that was used many years ago, labelling people as “anti-science” if they questioned widespread DDT use, which was also supposed to be an agricultural breakthrough that would help feed the world.

  • MCR

    An article almost half of which is lengthy quotes from GMO panderer Henry I. Miller (who defended the tobacco industry, the pesticide industry, denied climate change on behalf of oil companies, opposed victims of radiation poisoning on behalf of nuclear power, and defended BPA for the plastics industry, before moving on to champion GMOs) is little more than a biotech press release.

  • razorjack

    It seems somewhat strange to me that these outbreaks are happening at scattered locations around the country and that no other food sources seem to have been effected. Very strange and very suspicious looking. Others are seeing what I am am saying these outbreaks look like sabotage of a company who dared deify the corrupt GMO pesticide industry and make is food GMO free.

    Quoting Henry Miller is just a huge tell that this article is a a piece of industry PR planted propaganda, and shouldn’t be taken seriously by anyone who cares about the truth.

    It is just another demonstration of the fact that GMO pesticide industry junk pseudo-science cult ieiology must be protected from real science and the truth at all costs.

    Instead of pieces or PR spin like this we need to see some real science that shows long term consumption of GMO food by humans is safe. So far the industry has not been able to produce this science.

  • StopGMO

    You who!! Guess what, ecoli poisoning happens with conventional farming also. Stop picking on organic and now Chipotle for crying out loud. http://www.organicitsworthit.org/learn/e-coli-facts

  • StopGMO

    I am perfectly fine and so is my daughter.
    There is nothing wrong with their food. They are just being attacked and
    sabotaged because they are going against biotech’a agenda.

  • patzagame

    prove it!

  • StopGMO

    It doesn’t mean it was the best decision to make or the right thing to do. It also killed & destroyed many lives. wwwscientificamericancom/article/ddt-use-to-combat-malaria/