After several years of primarily filing suit against packaged food companies, a recently-filed lawsuit is targeting Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. for allegedly falsely labeling its menu as GMO free. In the Complaint, plaintiff sets forth how Chipotle launched a “Food with Integrity” program as part of its “carefully tailored … public image” to market to “healthy-lifestyle and environmentally conscious consumers that it knows are willing to pay premium prices for its food products because they align with the consumers’ ethical eating choices.” In April 2015, Plaintiff alleges, Chipotle “capitalized on this perception” by taking “the unprecedented step among fast-food restaurants [of] launching a multi-media publicity campaign touting that it was the ‘first national company’ in the food industry to serve a menu devoid of GMOs.”
Plaintiff claims that the foregoing marketing statements were false because:
Among other things, Chipotle serves meat products that come from animals which feed on GMOs, including corn and soy. Chipotle’s tacos and burritos are also usually served with sour cream and cheese from dairy farms that feed animals with GMOs. And, Chipotle also sells Coca-Cola and other soft drinks that are made with corn-syrup—a GMO. While Chipotle knows that its menu contains ingredients with GMOs, it takes no meaningful steps to clarify consumer misconceptions in its advertisements and on its billboards, both in stores and in print, which instead say “all” of the ingredients used in its Food Products are “non-GMO”.
Notably, plaintiff minimizes disclaimers on Chipotle’s website which state that “there is currently not a viable supply of responsibly raised meats and dairy from animals raised without GMO feed.” Specifically, plaintiff asserts that “Chipotle only discloses this information on its website because it knows its fast-food customers never need to visit Chipotle’s website to buy food, and are highly unlikely to seek out this information” and that consumers are instead “likely to rely on Chipotle’s internet, mass media, and in-store advertising ….”
And, of course, plaintiff alleges that,”[h]ad they known of the true character and quality of the ingredients used in Chipotle’s Food Products, Plaintiff and the putative class members would not have purchased (or would have paid less for) such products.”
Putting aside whether this lawsuit has merit, it serves as an important reminder that restaurants and even grocery stores are potential targets for litigation and must carefully review their marketing and in-store signage for statements that might increase their risk of being sued.