Why Chipotle must do more to communicate its non-GMO move

Chipotle has faced a slew of criticism this week for its decision to remove GMO food ingredients.

Chipotle tacos
Chipotle tacos

Chipotle’s latest move to use only non-GMO food ingredients has been met with an onslaught of backlash and distrust, making it critical for the brand to step up and voice the reasoning behind its decision.

As of Monday, the chain said all menu items across its 1,800 restaurants will no longer contain genetically modified ingredients. Chipotle founder, chairman, and co-CEO Steve Ells told The New York Times that this is "another step toward the visions we have of changing the way people think about and eat fast food."

While initial reports and social media comments appeared to be in favor of the decision, discontent began brewing throughout the week, with media outlets publishing articles about Chipotle’s newest "gimmick" and "junk science."

Negative comments from press and social media users have been centered on a few points: the lack of scientific data about GMOs being unhealthy; Chipotle continuing to sell soda, which includes GMOs; and the brand allegedly serving meat from animals raised on GMO-laden feed. Other opponents believe this is just an attempt for the brand to target Millennials.  

Despite the criticism, Chipotle hasn’t come back with a statement or follow-up interview to communicate its goals or clear up concerns. Sometimes staying quiet and waiting for the dust to settle makes sense for a company, but that method seems as if it will fall short for Chipotle’s band of digitally-savvy fans.

Other companies are making plans around GMOs – for example Whole Foods plans to label all products with genetically modified ingredients by 2018 – yet they aren’t facing the same censure. Whole Foods may not be triggering as negative of a response because its entire image is based on organic, good-for-you products, while Chipotle still faces the hurdle of being a fast-food restaurant, which is typically viewed as unhealthy. The organic grocer’s main consumer audience also may skew a little older than the majority of Chipotle’s buyers, making them less apt to voice their views as loudly on social media.

On Monday, after being quoted in several stories, Chipotle issued a press release and posted the news on Twitter and Facebook. As of Friday morning, the Facebook post had more than 59,000 likes, along with a slew of comments ranging from support to opposition. The tweet had more than 800 favorites and had been retweeted over 500 times.

With so much buzz, Chipotle should step into the limelight and have one of its execs speak up. Perhaps a Reddit AMA, YouTube video, or interview with a media outlet would help quell the storm.

Chipotle shouldn’t feel like it has to apologize for its actions, especially since Ells acknowledged the uncertainty of scientific research around GMOs in the initial press release.

"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 of the implications of widespread GMO cultivation and consumption," he said in the statement. "While that debate continues, we decided to move to non-GMO ingredients."

The chain also notes on its Chipotle.com/GMO website that many of its beverages sold in stores, as well as the feed supplied to animals, contain GMOs.

Farm fresh, sustainable foods have been a key part of Chipotle’s heritage for a long time – in fact, the chain announced its plans two years ago to remove all GMO ingredients. And last summer, Edelman New York, along with Creative Artists Agency Los Angeles, won the Grand Prix and a Gold Lion at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity for Chipotle’s The Scarecrow campaign, which focuses on the brand’s commitment to sustainably-raised food.

Even though all of these facts are available online, Chipotle should further clarify them and explain the motivations behind its new decision since many people won’t do their own research. Once consumers have a better understanding of the brand’s goals and values, the decision to go non-GMO may become more embraced than scrutinized.  

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