For some time now, the so-called fast-casual segment of the restaurant industry has irritated me. This hybrid segment does not offer table service and has no wait staff. What it promises or, more accurately, professes over and over again is the provision of higher quality food, prepared more “naturally” than its purportedly déclassé fast-food cousins. In the eyes of ownership, management and often self-righteous customers, you’d think we were talking entities more akin to the Arc de Triomphe or at least the Gateway Arch than to the Golden Arches of Mickey D’s.
Last week, Chipotle, the avatar of fast casual, sanctimoniously announced that its menus would be Genetically Modified Organism-free. To be sure, the chain, founded in 1993, has long puffed about serving “food with integrity,” about taking corporate social responsibility seriously, about ethical sourcing and about animal rights, and it has long taken pot shots at “Big Ag” and “Big Food.” But with its anti-GMO stance, its bona fides and, more importantly, its street cred among the food police, granolas and tree huggers become far more complete. And among others, too, for in the virtually meaningless but nonetheless nausea-inducing ad-speak the chain employs on its website, Chipotle claims that it serves “food with integrity” for “farmers, animals, the environment, dentists, crane operators, ribbon dancers, magicians, cartographers, and you.” Gee, thanks.
One would never know from Chipotle’s announcement regarding GMOs or, really, from any of its PR pablum, that a strong scientific consensus exists that GMOs are harmless to human health and pose no threats to the environment. Indeed, the science behind this consensus is at least as strong as scientific arguments regarding global warming and climate change. Yet Chipotle, “working to cultivate a better world” with “every burrito we roll or bowl we fill,” doesn’t want to muck up its profit machine by complicating its messaging. Why should it – given its desirable market niche with 18-34-years-olds, particularly with insecure college students and aspiring yuppies in training who want to strap on the feed bag but feel good about themselves in so doing, while simultaneously ring-fencing themselves from the demographic commonly associated with Burger King, Taco Bell and KFC?
Admittedly, Chipotle-going dentists, magicians and cartographers could already feel pretty good about themselves while gorging (ethically) on pork “from pigs allowed to freely root and roam outdoors or in deeply bedded barns,” but, with the chain going GMO-free, they will now be able to experience the frisson of excitement from being allied with anti-GMO European greens. Vive le porc, as discerning if bloated Chipotlers might say with a certain je ne sais quoi.
I used the present participle “gorging” advisedly in the sentence above, for there is no other way to describe what often goes on at Chipotle. For years now, nutritionists and public-health practitioners have been calling attention to the fact that the chain features one of the most calorie-dense and most unhealthy menus in America. And that is the case with or without GMOs. According to one New York Times study, meals at Chipotle average 1,070 calories, which is more calories than a Big Mac and a large order of fries have at Mickey D’s.
McDonald’s, interestingly enough, was a major investor in Chipotle between 1998 and 2006, but, hey, let’s forget about that: Chipotle is cultivating a better, GMO-free world. Fair enough, but maybe the suits running the chain could at least require line staff at stores to ask Chipotle-gorgers a few questions: Would you like guacamole with your Type 2 diabetes? Sour cream with your hypertension? Chips and roasted chili-corn with your hemorrhagic stroke? A casket with your preening but ultimately pathetic quest for calories and cultural capital?
Peter A. Coclanis, professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a past president of the Agricultural History Society.