Uncovering the Food-based Version of “Stolen Valor”


“We care deeply about where our ingredients come from,” says Chipotle Mexican Grill on its website.

Yet the restaurant chain apparently doesn’t care enough to tell the truth about them, judging from the result of a recent court case: Chipotle agreed last month to pay $6.5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that had charged the company with falsely advertising that its food was free of GMOs.

Critics have spread misinformation about GMOs from the start. They’ve denied and misled about what the science says (they’re safe), how they help farmers like me (we grow more food), how they protect the environment (we conserve land and keep soil healthy), how they benefit consumers (by holding down food prices), and more.

Once upon a time, the lies about GMOs were confined to the wild manifestos of ideological activists on the fringe of politics. Now they’ve gone mainstream, turning up in thousands of phony product claims. Chipotle just got caught and will pay a price – but many other brands continue to deceive.

We hear provocative lies all the time, from politicians, the media, and others. One of the most flamboyant involves military imposters: Liars who make false claims about military service and, for example, put Purple Heart citations on their license plates even though they were never wounded.

The Purple Heart military honor pin. Photo credit: Ed Passi; Flickr

As a veteran of the Vietnam War, I’ve always been outraged to learn of these deceptions – and I’m glad that they began to receive exposure two decades ago, starting with an investigative book by authors B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley, “Stolen Valor.”

Chipotle tried to flaunt its own supposedly valorous behavior when it claimed that its burritos and tacos contained no GMO ingredients. It sought to tout its own virtue for keeping allegedly harmful elements out of its food.

This was false on two levels. First, GMOs are perfectly safe to eat. Nobody who has seriously looked into the matter disputes this. To suggest otherwise, as Chipotle did, is to encourage the spread of disinformation and consumer ignorance.

Second, Chipotle’s own food chain was full of GMOs. The animals that supplied much of its meat were raised on GMOs. So the company’s ads were case studies in hypocrisy.

Chipotle got caught and now will suffer from its settlement costs and negative publicity. That’s the good news. The bad news is that our food industry is rife with similar examples of fraud.

Have you ever seen a food package with a special label that boasts non-GMO ingredients? Of course you have: The Non-GMO Project says that items bearing its label appear on more then 50,000 products for more than 3,000 brands, comprising a market worth more than $26 billion annually.

Here’s the problem: Much of this food actually contains GMOs. The Non-GMO Project doesn’t like to broadcast this fact, but it admits as much on page 15 of a 44-page document squirreled away on its website. (For a good overview, watch this video.)

There’s no such thing as non-GMO salt. Photo credit: Hazel Meadows; Flickr

That’s not the only sham, unfortunately. Many products that carry the non-GMO label aren’t even available in GMO varieties. There’s no such thing as non-GMO salt, for example. Salt doesn’t have genes so nobody can modify them. Every grain of salt ever sold in the history of salt is non-GMO. All the varieties of salt in your grocery store could bear a non-GMO label. And yet some kinds of salt try to brag about their non-GMO content.

This is ridiculous. It’s a form of false advertising. It promotes consumer ignorance because it implies that non-GMO foods are better or healthier than GMO foods.

At least one company has seen the light. Clover Leaf Seafood once placed non-GMO labels on its canned tuna and other products. Unlike salt, tuna have genes, but there’s still no such thing as GMO tuna. Clover Leaf Seafood recognized the absurdity of suggesting otherwise and reversed course. (Here’s another helpful video.)

Thank you, Clover Leaf Seafood, for believing in the integrity of food labels and respecting your consumers.

Sadly, its wise decision is the exception rather than the rule.

Bogus claims about GMOs are everywhere. If we stand by and tolerate them, they’ll cause people to lose faith in food companies, nutritional labels, and possibly even the honest work of ordinary farmers.

This scandal is nothing less than a food-based version of “stolen valor” – a bit of trickery that means to dupe everyday people into believing a lie.

Bill Horan

Bill Horan

Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and other grains with his brother on a family farm based in North Central Iowa. Bill volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network.

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