Last April, Chipotle announced it would be phasing out ingredients containing genetically modified organisms. As Science of Us argued at the time, this was a meaningless bit of PR designed to bolster Chipotle’s reputation as a “responsible” or “wholesome” fast-food joint; while GMOs, like any technology, need to be effectively regulated and deployed responsibly, all else being equal there are no valid reasons to consider foods without GMOs to be healthier or more environmentally friendly than those containing them. But Americans are terribly ill-informed about GMOs — they answer basic true-false questions about the technology with barely more accuracy than a coin flip — and therefore become easy prey to this sort of opportunistic corporate feel-goodery.
Eight months later, the company’s decision to focus on GMOs looks even more wrongheaded. Since that announcement, hundreds of customers — including, in one memorable incident, half of the Boston College men’s basketball team — have been sickened by norovirus, salmonella, and E. coli as a result of eating Chipotle, prompting a number of lawsuits along the way. Things are only getting worse: Yesterday, the company acknowledged that it had recently been hit with a subpoena as part of a federal investigation into a norovirus outbreak that occurred last year in California.
This is a useful reminder that any company making scientifically unsubstantiated claims about its own products should be viewed skeptically. We now know that even as Chipotle was enjoying a wave of positive publicity it didn’t really deserve, it was endangering its customers with lax food-safety oversight. In retrospect, the chain should have spent a little less time worrying about keeping GMOs out of its burritos, and more time making sure they were free of E. coli.