This week all 33 Chipotle Mexican Grills in Kansas City are busy rolling out sofritas, a new menu item that features a mixture of shredded and chipotle-braised tofu mixed with roasted poblano peppers that can be wrapped in a burrito or used as a filling in tacos or a bowl.
The slightly spicy offering is targeted at vegans, but that’s not what put it in the spotlight last April at Unity Temple on the Plaza, when Cultivate KC hosted India’s Vandana Shiva.
Shiva is world famous for leading a crusade against foods containing GMOs: genetically modified organisms. And the tofu in Chipotle’s sofritas is GMO-free, made by California-based Hodo Soy.
Chipotle, in fact, has been quietly trying to rid its menu of GMO products to be consistent with the company’s “overall belief in food with integrity,” says Chris Arnold, the Denver-based company’s communications director. “The biggest hurdle is we don’t want to change the taste or quality of the food.”
Shiva and her supporters treat GMOs as a villain of the food world, like “pink slime” and Yellow No. 5, but it remains to be seen if they deserve the bad rap. Conservative estimates find 70 to 80 percent of America’s processed foods (think cereals, crackers, cookies, soy milk and even baby formula) are derived from crops such as corn, soy and cotton grown from GMO seed.
A report released earlier this year by the NPD Group, a global marketing company, shows more than half of U.S. consumers express concerns over GMOs, even if most can’t define the term. The number of adults who were “very” or “extremely” concerned about GMOs has climbed from 10 percent to 20 percent since 2002, according to NPD. While 44 percent say GMOs have some kind of benefit, a higher percentage have some level of concern.
“A consumer does not have to know the complex science to be against GMO,” Shiva said during an interview with The Star. “They do need to know this is not conventional breeding. It does have genes that don’t belong to that plant, and some of those genes may pose potential risks.”
By definition, GMO plants have had their DNA altered, often to create breeds that are more resistant to calamities such as disease or drought, and even be more nutritious.
Proponents say GMO plants help farmers and keep costs down for consumers. Opponents say GMO foods combine DNA from organisms that would not cross in nature, and the long-term effects on health are unknown.
Across the country, grassroots consumer groups are taking their concerns about GMOs to state legislatures: This year, 35 labeling bills were introduced in 20 states, according to the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit public interest and environmental advocacy organization. Oregon and Colorado both had ballot issues on labeling last week that failed, and Maui took it a step further by banning GMO crops through an expensive ballot issue that squeaked through after a heavily funded campaign.
Closer to home, Wichita-based U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Republican, has sought to block state implementation of GMO labeling with the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014. The proposed bill, which has bipartisan support and is headed for a committee hearing in December, would give ultimate authority over GMO labeling to the Food and Drug Administration, which favors a voluntary approach.
Pompeo is on the record alongside food, biotechnology and agriculture industry groups who argue potential health issues linked to GMO crops have been overstated.
“My legislation is a common sense, science-based approach based on FDA’s historic role in food safety,” Pompeo responded to The Star in a written statement. “Companies like Chipotle ought to have the freedom to respond if consumers want organic or GMO-free food. My bill won’t impact any company’s ability to voluntarily label their food, as long as it is truthful.
“However, mandating warning labels on safe food that contain GMOs will only create confusion and raise consumer costs — without any scientific justification.”
Last week the USDA approved a GMO potato by Simplot, McDonald’s main supplier, that produces less of the suspected cancer-causing chemical acrylamide when fried. The potato also resists bruising during shipping.
Meanwhile, Chipotle joins Ben & Jerry’s and Whole Foods in efforts to remove GMOs from their supply chains.
Chipotle is known for its conscientious sourcing of ingredients, including using humanely raised pork and serving locally sourced produce in season.
Ben & Jerry’s is based in Vermont, a state that has passed a GMO labeling law that goes into effect in 2016. The ice cream company has launched its own campaign to “Labelize It” that is displayed prominently on its website.
Whole Foods has already begun GMO-free verification by a third party, and the company plans to have every product on its shelves labeled by 2018, according to its website.
But removing GMOs from the menu is not an easy task. Chipotle has had some success switching to non-GMO vegetable oils to fry chips and taco shells, but replacing ingredients in the tortillas has been more problematic in terms of replicating both flavor and texture.
One hurdle for Ben & Jerry’s is to contract only with dairies that do not use GMO animal feed. The Whole Foods website says the company plans to add more certified organic products, which are by definition non-GMO.
Arnold said Chipotle has skirted the heavy-handed approach to marketing its politics of the plate to its customers, preferring to “provide context as to why it matters” through materials available on its website, Chipotle.com, under the “Food With Integrity” tab. There, factoids cover issues ranging from sustainable farming to the restaurant’s own recycled napkins and sour cream from pasture-raised cows’ milk.
“I don’t know if this is a campaign that can be communicated on a billboard,” says Ben Neis, Chipotle senior market strategist based in Kansas City. “It’s a fairly complex issue.”
The more people understand about where their food comes from, the more they want to know.
Katherine Kelly, executive director of Cultivate KC, a nonprofit focused on sustainable agriculture practices and a host for Shiva’s recent visit to Kansas City, says that while she can’t speak to the science behind GMOs, she supports labeling. “If you have a child with allergies or (you) are concerned about organics, you have a right to know what’s in your food,” she said.
Meanwhile, Neis points to the featured item on the menu billboard at the Chipotle in the Power & Light District. Over the next two weeks, all area restaurants will be sampling the sofritas, which mark the first protein addition to the menu since the company’s launch in 1993.