Media Reaction to Chipotle’s GMO Announcement May Signal Shift in Coverage of Pseudoscience

by Daren Williams, Senior Executive Director, Communications, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff

Summary

Chipotle Mexican Grill (NASDAQ:CMG) recently announced plans to discontinue using genetically-modified (GMO) ingredients in their food, with the notable exception of their sodas, which likely contain corn syrup made from GMO corn, and meat from animals that have been fed GMO crops. The reaction from major media outlets including NPR and the Washington Post was not favorable, accusing the company of joining “a global propaganda campaign” that is “contrary to the best scientific knowledge” in an attempt to “distract consumers from ‘the real problem with Chipotle food, which is that it's just not healthy.’" Did the Chipotle GMO announcement backfire? Does the mainstream media’s skepticism of their GMO announcement signal a shift in media coverage of marketing tactics that capitalize on the consumers’ lack of scientific knowledge? A review of the media coverage of the Chipotle announcement appears to indicate a lower tolerance for fear-based marketing than in recent years.

Background

In 2001, Chipotle released a mission statement called Food with Integrity outlining their commitment to sourcing locally-raised ingredients (whenever possible) and meat from “pasture-raised animals” raised without “non-therapeutic antibiotics and synthetic hormones,” among other things. Shortly thereafter they trademarked the term “Responsibly Raised” to describe the way their food is produced. This led to a string of advertising campaigns disparaging conventional food production, including two animated videos—Back to the Start and The Scarecrow—which feature cartoon images of livestock raised in “factory farming” conditions contrasted against bucolic scenes with animals frolicking in a fenceless pasture. The ads received rave reviews from the media.

This past year, CEO Steve Ells announced in a blog on the Huffington Post that Chipotle would begin sourcing grass-fed beef from Australia because American farmers and ranchers weren’t producing enough “Responsibly Raised” beef to meet their demand. “We're optimistic that our decision to serve grass-fed beef from Australia is one small step in the larger journey of restoring the practice of raising great American beef entirely on grass,” said Ells. The Beef Checkoff responded by sharing the story of two U.S. beef producers (both from California) who responsibly raise both grass-finished and grain-finished beef. Attempts to meet with CEO Ells to discuss the decision have not been successful.

The decision to purchase grass-finished beef was met with some skepticism, but mostly within agriculture. Texas Ag Commissioner Todd Staples joined frustrated ranchers in expressing concern about the move. However, even some mainstream news sources have questioned whether sourcing beef from halfway around the world is responsible. In fact, the decision was ranked fourth on Buzzfeed’s list of Nine Disappointing Facts about Chipotle.

New coverage of Chipotle’s GMO announcement was considerably less kind. Headlines like “Chipotle’s Non-GMO Push is based on Bad Science” and “Would you like some criticism on your GMO-free Chipotle burrito?” were common in the days that followed. Even the editorial boards of the Chicago Tribune and USA Today questioned the message Chipotle was sending. “GMO food bans pander to ignorance” was the viewpoint of USA Today editors while the Chicago Tribune pointed out inconsistencies in the announcement, saying, “Chipotle’s GMO Message is Muddled.

Discussion

The question is whether the mainstream media’s skepticism of Chipotle’s GMO announcement signals a shift in media coverage of marketing tactics that capitalize on consumers’ lack of scientific knowledge. The list of food marketing adjectives like non-GMO, gluten-free, antibiotic-free, natural, fresh and local seems to be growing. While consumers may have little or no idea what these terms actually mean, for the most part, they have worked for the companies that use them to convince consumers to pay more for their product, like $10 burritos at Chipotle. 

However, media coverage of GMOs in food has clearly shifted since the Chipotle announcement. Case in point, a recent column by Jane Brody in the New York Times concluded that fear, not facts, support GMO-free food. “The anti-G.M.O. movement, I’m afraid, risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” said Brody. “The often-voiced concern that introducing genes from different species is unnatural and potentially dangerous ignores the fact that all living organisms, including humans, share thousands, even millions of genes with other species (we share 84 percent of our genes with dogs!). As for safety, G.M.O.’s are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. Developers must test the product for toxicity and allergenicity as well as assure that its nutrient content is at least as good as its non-G.M.O. counterpart.”

Coinciding with the recent backlash against the Chipotle GMO announcement, mainstream media sentiment toward self-professed food police like Vani Hari (aka the Food Babe) and Dr. Oz took a sudden turn with several popular online news sites publishing scathing critiques of their anti-science fearmongering, prompting one reporter to pose the question: “How should journalists cover quacks like Dr. Oz or the Food Babe?

“The debate over how to handle peddlers of pseudoscience comes up again and again in the newsroom,” wrote Vox News Health report Julia Belluz, “With every Food Babe, Dr. Oz, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Jenny McCarthy, we mull some combination of the following: Do they deserve to be addressed? Should we seriously engage their ideas? And if we cover them, what’s the best way to do so: mockery? Earnest debunking?”

Conclusions

Recent media coverage of the Chipotle GMO announcement and “peddlers of pseudoscience” like the Food Babe and Dr. Oz. demonstrates a shift in mainstream media coverage on topics like GMOs in food production. However, unfounded fears of the use of technology in food production still present significant challenges for the beef community. When science takes a back seat to fearmongering, both consumers and food producers lose. If allowed to take root, irrational fear of what’s in our food could lead to the loss of valuable tools like antibiotics, growth promotants and genetically-modified feed that allow American farmers and ranchers to raise the world’s best beef in the most sustainable way.

Additional Resources

Tags: Beef Issues Quarterly, Issues Updates, Summer 2015

June 19, 2015