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“Better” makes you a target

29th September 2015

Both Chipotle and Whole Foods are currently being sued – it seems for trying to do “the right thing” and delivering what their customers want.

In Chipotle’s case, it’s the fast-casual food chain’s move to be GMO-free prompted a class action filed on behalf of Californian consumers who dined at Chipotle after 27 April. Kaplan Fox & Kilsheimer LLP, the law firm behind the action, claim the chain is ripping off “healthy-lifestyle and environmentally conscious consumers who are willing to pay premium prices for food that aligns with the consumers’ ethical eating choices.”

GMO, genetically modified ingredientsThe chain still has drinks that use GMO-corn syrup and its meat is raised on GM feeds. More than 90% of corn and soybeans grown in US came from GMO strains in 2014 so it’s difficult to avoid. Chipotle has previously acknowledged that it can’t do much about GM feed given to animals.

While Chipotle has tried to respond its customers’ preferences, but at the same time acknowledges that their concerns are pretty much groundless. In response to the lawsuit a Chipotle spokesperson quoted by Forbes magazine was quoted as saying “The lawsuit is ‘meritless,’ and ‘filled with inaccuracies,’ ‘Chipotle has always been honest and transparent with its customers, and the messaging surrounding our use of non-GMO ingredients is no exception.’… He said that while the meat Chipotle serves is from animals fed GMO grains, ‘that does not mean that our meat is GMO, any more than people would be genetically modified if they ate GMO grains.'” Good point!

In 2013, Chipotle became the first chain to label all GMO foods it served. On 27 April, Chipotle announced with great fanfare it would no longer serve food made with genetically modified ingredients. At that time, Chipotle claimed is menu was already almost completely non-GMO except for one tortilla.

In the case of Whole Foods, animal rights activitist organization PETA has attacked its 5-step Animal Welfare Rating System – something that few other retailers would even attempt. Step 1, the basic standard, is described by the grocery chain as “no crates, no cages, no crowding” while Step 5, the highest rating, has the animal’s wellbeing as the highest priority, including animals receiving extensive outdoor access and spending their entire lives on the same farm.

The lawsuit alleges that Whole Foods’ use of the rating system is misleading, as some standards are not much better than normal industry standards and they are not enforced in a meaningful way, while customers are charged more for the meat.

The lawsuit seeks to be certified as a class action on behalf of an estimated thousands of customers who bought meat or poultry from Whole Foods stores in California in the past four years, and asks for restitution to those class members of money paid to the grocer as a result of the alleged prices.

The advocacy group filed the lawsuit after recently filming an undercover video at one of the retailer’s pork suppliers in Pennsylvania that allegedly shows abuse.

These lawsuits are little more than nuisance value, but they highlight an uncomfortable truth for corporates who aim to do “better” – you will be held to a much higher standard and will almost certainly be targeted by interest groups who are keen to raise their own profiles.