Chipotle Commits to Going Non-GMO

08 Nov, 2013

Guest article by Ken Roseboro

In the world of fast food restaurants, Chipotle Mexican Grill stands out for its commitment to “Food with Integrity.” This means serving foods made with local, sustainably produced—and often organic—vegetables and beans and meats from naturally raised—not factory farm—animals. In the past year, Chipotle has gone further by committing to serving foods with non-GMO integrity; foods made from ingredients that are not genetically modified.

Aims to switch to non-GMO “as quickly as possible”

Last spring Chipotle posted GMO-risk ingredients in its foods on the company’s website—an unheard of and risky move for a US restaurant chain.

But according to Joshua Brau, Food with Integrity program manager, revealing GMO ingredients was a logical step.

“Transparency and giving our customers information about where their food comes from is a core part of who we are as a company, and we felt that GMO disclosure was a key component of that,” he says.

At the same time, Chipotle also committed to phasing out the use of GM ingredients, though Brau says there was no deadline for that.

“We want to make the transition as quickly as possible but also to pursue it in a responsible manner,” he says. “There are aspects of the transition that require time such as coordinating with our suppliers and educating our restaurant crews.”

Chipotle is progressing toward its non-GMO goal. Non-GMO corn is used to make corn salsas. GMO-risk soybean oil is being replaced with sunflower oil for frying and rice bran oils for cooking, grilling, and sautéing. Brau says the transition to non-GMO oils will be complete within a couple of months.

Tortillas, including corn, crispy, and chips, are a challenge because they are made from GMO-risk corn; flour tortillas, used to make burritos and tacos, are made from GMO-risk corn starch and soybean oil.

“We’re testing some alternatives for our tortillas now and are working with our suppliers to develop a supply of non-GMO ingredients,” Brau says.

In a recent call to stock analysts, co-chief executive Steve Ells said Chipotle will likely increase menu prices between three and five percent because of the higher costs for non-GMO ingredients.

Getting meat and dairy from animals raised on non-GMO feed is a bigger challenge. Chipotle sources grass-fed beef but Brau says finding non-GMO raised chicken and pork is challenging because there isn’t enough non-GMO feed.

“As consumers continue to demand more non-GMO food, the supply of non-GMO grains will increase,” he says. “It’s not a goal we can achieve in a year or two but it is something we are working on and is an important piece of the puzzle.”

Chipotle supports labeling of GM foods and endorsed, but did not donate to, both California’s Proposition 37 and Washington’s Initiative 522.

Organic beans, rice, tofu

Chipotle also uses large quantities of organic ingredients, including vegetables, spices, and beans. In 2012 Chipotle purchased more than 6.8 million pounds of organic black beans and more than 1.7 million pounds of organic pinto beans. Michigan-based Organic Bean & Grain is one of Chipotle’s suppliers of black and turtle beans.

“They are our biggest customer,” says company president Mark Vollmar. “There is more demand than we can supply.”

Chipotle is also sourcing organic white and brown rice from McKaskle Family Farm in southern Missouri. Owner Steve McKaskle, who is the only producer of organic rice in Missouri, has been supplying rice to Chipotle restaurants in Little Rock, Arkansas and Memphis, Tennessee for more than a year. Now Chipotle is working with McKaskle to expand his production to supply 800,000 pounds of organic rice to 14 Chipotle restaurants in the Kansas City, MO area. McKaskle aims to supply organic rice to as many as 75 Chipotle restaurants in the next two to five years.

Organic tofu has also been added to Chipotle’s menu. The company is now testing a braised tofu option called Sofritas, which is available in about 40% of its restaurants on the west coast and in Colorado. It will be tested in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC by the end of the year. Chipotle buys the tofu from Hodo Soy Beanery, an artisanal producer of tofu and soymilk in the San Francisco Bay area. Organic soybeans used to make the tofu are grown in Illinois.

While organic is important, Chipotle buys locally and sustainably grown produce from small farms as much as possible. Chipotle purchases more than 15 million pounds of produce grown by farmers within 350 miles of the company’s participating restaurants.

“In general the less time an ingredient spends in storage and transport between the farm and the restaurant, the better the taste and nutritional content,” Brau says.

Rapid growth

Chipotle is also known for its creative animated videos that ruffle the feathers of conventional agriculture. Its most recent video depicts a scarecrow’s journey to bring wholesome food back to the people by providing an alternative to the processed food that dominates his world. The “Scarecrow” video has generated more than 7 million views on YouTube. But major agricultural groups, such as the National Chicken Council and American Meat Institute, criticized it, saying it portrays a romanticized view of agriculture that is not going to “feed the world.”

Big Ag groups may be concerned that Chipotle’s message is resonating with more Americans. Chipotle has grown to 1550 restaurants with 26,000 employees. There are plans to open another 180 to 195 restaurants in 2014. Its stock price increased 72% this year. Not bad for a company that started in 1993 when founder Steve Ells opened his first restaurant at a former Dolly Madison ice cream location in Denver.

Now, Chipotle has added non-GMO to its “Food with Integrity” mission.

“We want to buy the very best ingredients from the most sustainable sources to serve to our customers, and moving away from GMOs is a crucial step in that process,” Brau says.

Ken is editor of The Organic & Non-GMO Report. He can be reached at ken@non-gmoreport.com.

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  • Guest

    i
    dont eat at any restaurants unless their all certified organic. Its
    hard to find restaurant but the more that do thell get my bizz.

  • P.

    I dont eat at any restaurants unless their all certified organic. Its
    hard to find restaurant but the more that do thell get my bizz.

  • LPJUNKIE

    B-Bye Chipotle!!!! You are nothing but another sell out to corporate greed!! My family will no longer be eating there!!!

  • evasabutterfly

    What are you talking about? This is clearly a step in the right direction to combat big corporate agendas and provide high quality food while supporting local farmers.

  • evasabutterfly

    Hats off to chipotle! You are my #1 eat out spot! Thank you for supporting local farmers and educating the public on gmo’s. You’re the best!!!!!

  • Marcella

    Chipotle is one of two places to eat in Tyler, Tx. Thank you so much for giving me and my family a REAL food option (soon)…it makes my 3 yr old so excited when we get to go to a resteraunt!

  • Marcella

    LPJUNKIE, what are you talking about?? Corporate greed?? Wow, I am always so incredibly surprised by people’s lack of knowledge.

  • Guest

    So sorry!!! I originally misread the post and thought they had caved!!!! I have since post positive but until know just realized I could delete. Just wanted you to see it before I do!!

  • autopuppet1

    What about the Soda drinks like Coca Cola that contain GMO ?

  • victorcab

    Agree that the drinks could use the same treatment. Stop hfc/corn syrup!

  • wayne

    This is good news! Now how about beating Monsanto at their own game. How about having restaurants put a sign in the window that this is a Non-GMO Project restaurant (much like the “A” from the health dept. in Calif.). Since the big corporations buy the votes to defeat labeling, let’s just boycott them by boycotting the restaurants who buy their product. Not that voting for labeling is bad, but I think it would have a bigger impact by boycotting. At least it’s worth a try!

  • Amy Smith Simonson

    Bravo, Chipotle!! One more reason to patronize only your restaurants!! Keep up the fight!

  • David Evans

    Great food too!