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Chipotle is not keeping non-GMO promises, lawsuit says

A class action lawsuit claims that Chipotle has continued to serve food made with GMOs since it announced it had phased them out of its food supply this past April. 

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    A sign is seen at a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant in San Francisco.
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This past April, Chipotle announced that it had phased out genetically modified organisms (GMOs), from its food supply.  GMOs being as polarizing as they are, the move was lauded by some and met with deep cynicism from others.

Now, opponents have levied another charge at the chain’s non-GMO claims: that they aren’t true. On Monday, a California law firm filed a class-action lawsuit in a federal court charging that Chipotle has continued to serve food items made with GMOs since the April announcement. 

“Specifically, the complaint alleges that Chipotle has marketed its ‘Food With Integrity’ brand to healthy-lifestyle and environmentally conscious consumers who are willing to pay premium prices for food that aligns with the consumers' ethical eating choices,” reads a release from the law firm Kaplan Fox & Kilsheimer LLP, which brought the suit on behalf of California consumers who have bought food at Chipotle since the end of April. 

Among other things, the suit says  that the chain serves meat products from animals fed with GMOs, including soy and corn, that its sour cream and cheese ingredients come from dairy farms that feed animals with GMOs, and that it sells soft drinks made with GMO corn syrup.

“Stores should have accurately informed customers about the source and quality of its ingredients and should not mislead consumers that they are serving food without GMOs when in fact they are,” Laurence D. King, an attorney on the lawsuit, said in the release. 

Chipotle intends to "vigorously contest this meritless and unfair claim," company spokesman Chris Arnold writes in an e-mail to the Monitor. "Chipotle has always been honest and transparent with our customers, and the messaging surrounding our use of non-GMO ingredients is no exception. 

 Still, the complaints echo some of the of the skepticism that met the April announcement. Critics painted the non-GMO pledge as a cynical appeal to consumers wary of GMOs, despite all credible scientific research thus far failing to find any evidence that they are unsafe.

“This is not a safety issue,” New York University food studies professor Marion Nestle wrote in a blog post  at the time. “GMO corn ingredients were not making Chipotle customers sick. Chipotle customers are offended that GMO foods are not labeled and that they have no choice about whether to eat them ... This – and the rise in sales of organic foods – are a direct result of the industry’s own actions.”

Furthermore, as Chipotle itself has acknowledged, an entirely GMO-free supply chain is a near impossibility for a major restaurant chain in America, since more than 90 percent of the corn and soybeans grown in the US are genetically modified.

“The meat and dairy products we buy come from animals that are not genetically modified. But it is important to note that most animal feed in the U.S. is genetically modified, which means that the meat and dairy served at Chipotle are likely to come from animals given at least some GMO feed, “ a disclaimer on the chain’s website reads. “Many of the beverages sold in our restaurants contain genetically modified ingredients."

That’s why, it says, it uses the term “non –GMO” rather than GMO-free.

Colleen Gallagher, the lead plaintiff on the suit, argued to Reuters that most customers are unlikely to see the caveats buried on a company website, and are more likely to rely on advertising.

The suit is just the latest legal dustup over food labeling claims. Last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned the makers of ‘Just Mayo’ vegan spread that the product doesn’t meet the minimum legal requirements to be labeled as mayonnaise, and that certain health claims on the product’s labeling don’t hold up.  

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include Chipotle's comments.

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