A lawsuit accusing Chipotle of “purposefully misrepresenting” that its food does not contain organisms that have been genetically modified can go forward and will not be dismissed, according to a ruling by a U.S. District Judge. The case, filed in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Florida in September and seeking class action status, claims that Chipotle misled consumers in ads saying its food is GMO free. Chipotle’s meat and dairy products come from animals that consume genetically modified feed, the suit claims. Recently, a Miami judge rejected Chipotle’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. A trial date is set for November.
What is GMO? GMOs (or “genetically modified organisms”) are organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering, or GE. This relatively new science creates unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacteria and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.
In this case, Plaintiff Leslie Reilly of Florida, sued Chipotle in September 2015, explaining that she paid a “premium price” for Chipotle’s food only because she believed it did not contain GMOs, or genetically-modified organisms. While the Denver-based chain claims on its website that it is the first national restaurant company “to cook only with non-GMO ingredients,” it also recognizes that the meat and dairy served at its restaurants are likely to come “from animals given at least some GMO feed.”
But Reilly’s complaint alleges that “meat and dairy products that come from animals that consume GMO feed are in fact GMO products.” The complaint also says Chipotle’s marketing of its food as containing only non-GMO ingredients constitutes “unfair and deceptive practices.”
“Based on her understanding of GMO products, [Reilly] interpreted Chipotle’s advertisements to mean that its animals were not raised on GMO feed,” according to U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Cooke’s ruling.
The judge indicated that while Chipotle doesn’t agree with Reilly’s interpretation of GMO products, it will be up to the trial court to determine if Reilly’s interpretation is reasonable to consumers.
Cooke’s ruling denied certain parts of Chipotle’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which is seeking class action status.
Chipotle began voluntarily disclosing the presence of GMOs in its food in 2013. The restaurant chain often markets the tagline, “Food with integrity.” “In 2015, we succeeded in our quest to switch to serving food made only with non-GMO ingredients,” the company states on its website. Chipotle explains that its meat and dairy products come from animals that are not genetically modified, but that “most animal feed in the U.S. is genetically modified,” according to its website.
While both sides of the case argued about the definitions of GMOs, Judge Cooke wrote in the court order that “more evidence is needed to establish both a definition of the term and whether a reasonable consumer would share Ms. Reilly’s interpretation of the term.”
A spokesman for Chipotle said the company plans to fight the case.
Chipotle explains on its website that it’s “working hard” on sourcing meat and dairy exclusively from animals that are not raised on GMO feed.
The claims are similar to those laid out in another lawsuit filed around the same time in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California, which was dismissed by a judge this month after the plaintiff decided to withdraw. The plaintiff’s lawyer in that case couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Chipotle last year jumped into the controversy over GMOs when it said it would become the first national restaurant company to use only non-GMO ingredients.