By Will Coggin

Newspaper: USA Today 

The recent E. coli outbreak linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill locations in Oregon and Washington State — the chain’s third incident related to foodborne illness this year — should serve as a wake-up call to consumers seduced by Chipotle’s marketing campaigns.

Chipotle has built its brand around a narrative in which, compared to other restaurants, its food is healthier and its practices more ethical. But a closer look shows that the company’s food standards are, unlike its hefty burritos, empty.

Let’s start with the basics. Using vague but popular buzzwords — “local,” “all-natural,” “sustainable” — Chipotle has constructed a brand identity in which consumers associate the company with better-for-you-food.

But these terms are meaningless when it comes to the health of food. Your basic Chipotle burrito — filled with meat, beans, cheese, sour cream, guacamole and rice — clocks in around 1,300 calories, not including chips. That’s more than two Big Macs combined. And those calories count regardless of whether or not the food is local. (It’s often not — Chipotle sources meat from Australia and the U.K.)

Restaurants should be free to serve high-calorie menu items. The problem is that Chipotle markets its food by misleading consumers and maligning perfectly safe products and practices.

Consider Chipotle’s controversial no-genetically modified food policy. Scientific consensus holds that GMO foods such as corn are just as safe as other foods — a position endorsed by public health authorities including the World Health Organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Britain’s Royal Society of Medicine and the American National Academy of Sciences.

That didn’t stop Chipotle from switching to a new GMO-free menu in April, an announcement made in conjunction with a high-profile media campaign, dubbed G-M-Over It, to publicize the change. Explaining the decision, Chipotle said the use of GMOs doesn’t align with its mission to “source the highest quality ingredients” or its vision of “food with integrity.”

If Chipotle considers “integrity” to be going against a scientific consensus, then that’s an odd definition. In fact, a class-action lawsuit filed in September accuses Chipotle of false marketing because, despite its anti-GMO pledge, the chain still serves soda sweetened with sugar from genetically improved corn. According to the legal complaint, Chipotle has not taken any “meaningful steps to clarify consumer misconceptions” in its marketing campaigns.

Then there’s antibiotics, another area of focus for the fast casual chain. Chipotle promotes its meat as antibiotic-free, meaning the animals were raised without the use of antibiotics. Doing so implies that meat products from other chains contain harmful antibiotics, which isn’t the case.

The Food and Drug Administration mandates withdrawal periods after animals are treated with antibiotics. These strict guidelines are designed to ensure that antibiotics are fully cleared from an animal’s system before the meat product reaches consumers.

In other words, any meat you buy should be considered “antibiotic-free,” regardless of how the animal was raised.

While Chipotle’s policy on antibiotics doesn’t affect food safety for consumers, it does have a negative impact on the welfare of livestock animals. The policy leads to more sickness in animals as farmers can’t use antibiotics to prevent disease, which in turn leads to increased mortality rates in livestock herds.

Meanwhile, Chipotle touts organic food, but this can come with its own risks. Organic food cannot be grown with synthetic fertilizer, so farmers often turn to manure. Manure can carry fecal bacteria such as E. coli. While it’s unclear if organic food is behind the Chipotle outbreak, E. coli in organic bean sprouts sickened over 1,000 people in Germany in 2011. Marketing food as organic may sound good — but the reality may be a little, well, stomach-turning.

Consumers are increasingly looking to learn more about their food. The ongoing E. coli outbreak should call attention to what matters and what doesn’t. Food marketing designed to sell burritos is often just that: fluff and puffery. At the end of the day, what really matters is if your food makes you sick to your stomach.