Did You Hear the One About Chipotle and the Pro-GMO Plot?

181px-2008-10-05_Chipotle_Mexican_Grill_in_DurhamA new conspiracy theory is making the social media rounds in the wake of last autumn’s Chipotle Mexacan Grill E coli outbreak: that the outbreak is a deliberate effort to sabotage Chipotle’s recent commitment to GMO-free foods and, more broadly, the chain’s commitment to “better” ingredients. Not to worry, Chipotle fans — it’s far more likely that the outbreak was caused by kitchen ne’er-do-wells than by pro-GMO villains.

Here are the outbreak basics: the CDC traced more than 50 cases of E coli in October and November back to a common source, that source being a meal at Chipotle eaten a week or so before symptoms appeared. The cases occurred in nine states, the majority of which occurred in Washington and Oregon. No one food item at the restaurant has yet been identified as the contaminated culprit (the investigation is ongoing) but the pattern was stark enough for the CDC to issue public statements and to state with some certainty that Chipotle was the origin point for the illnesses.

Pretty straightforward, right? Not to the anti-GMO crowd, who have begun to suspect nefarious agents are at work here. Not surprisingly, two-time Worst Anti-Science Website winner Natural News is leading the charge on this one. In fact, every iteration of this I’ve seen online seems to come directly from a December 23rd article written by Mike Adams. Here’s the full extent of the accusation, straight from the Health Ranger’s keyboard:

After observing recent events involving Chipotle and e.coli, here’s my analysis of the situation: Chipotle’s e.coli outbreaks are not random chance. They are the result of the biotech industry unleashing bioterrorism attacks against the only fast food company that has publicly denounced GMOs.

How do we know? The CDC has already admitted that some of these e.coli outbreaks involve a “rare genetic strain” of e.coli not normally seen in foods. Furthermore, we also know the track record of the biotech industry engaging in the most criminal, dirty, sleazebag tactics imaginable against any person or company that speaks out against GMOs.

The “rare genetic strain” claim Adams refers to can only come, as far as I can tell, from a line in a December 21st update the CDC issued on the Chipotle outbreak (note that Adams’s screed came out two days after this update). Here’s the line:

Additionally, 5 people infected with a different, rare DNA fingerprint of STEC O26 have been identified in Kansas (1), North Dakota (1), and Oklahoma (3) and appear to be linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill.

The part about a “rare DNA fingerprint” is the closest to Adams’ quoted “rare genetic strain” in the CDC releases (Google searches for “rare genetic strain” + Chipotle call up exclusively articles repeating the sabotage theory).  “STEC O26” here stands for Shiga-toxin producing Escherichia coli O26, one of more than 70 varieties of STEC, which is itself only one subset of the larger group of E coli, many of which are not harmful to humans.

When most people think about E coli, they are probably thinking of STEC O157, the most common E coli outbreak culprit. O157 lives in the guts of cattle and other ruminants, and it’s not uncommon for it to get into the food supply. It is far from the only STEC ever detected, though; according to the CDC, STEC O157 only causes about 36% of the 265,000 or so annual E coli infections. As STEC O26 is also found in the gut bacteria of cattle, it’s not impossible that it, rather than STEC O157, is the culprit, given that 54% of annual cases involve something other than O157 strains.

Further, that December 21 “rare” remark was made in relation to five cases that were not yet included in the larger outbreak specifically because of the genetic difference. Nowhere can I find a time when the CDC referred to the core outbreak itself as stemming from a “rare genetic strain”. Even on reading comprehension, Adams seems to fail.

So, we know that the “rare genetic strain” claim is worthless. What else does Adams have to offer? Nothing. The rest of the article is just Adams citing prior Natural News articles where Adams has pointed the finger at evil biotech malefactors in the past (one of Adams’ signature talents), and each of those articles is as chock full of nothing as this one is. He lacks any actual evidence that some conspiracy has been inflicted on Chipotle. He pretty much admits this right in the first sentence, where he labels his view an “analysis” of the story. “Analysis” here is pretty much a fancy word for “scaremongering spin”.

So if biotech terrorists aren’t at fault, what happened at Chipotle? It’s far more likely that the culprit here is negligence, plain and simple. For example, chain locations in Washington, one of the centers of the outbreak, have faced a number of recent food safety violations, including “improper food cooking times and temperatures, improper food holding temperatures and inadequate hand washing“. Each of these violations is liable to lead to an E coli outbreak.

Both improper cooking temperatures and improper holding temperatures can encourage contamination. E coli growth can occur in food at temperatures as high as 49ºC (120ºF). The USDA dictates that cooked animal meats be brought to an internal temperature of at least 63ºC (145ºF) or higher and held there for at least 15 seconds, depending on the kind and cut of meat; they also dictate that hot foods be held at a minimum of 57ºC (135ºF) before serving. The food is meant to be cooked and held at a temperature that will not only prevent growth, but also likely kill the bacteria. Some Chipotle locations were apparently failing at one, the other, or both.

Then there’s the hand washing problem. If a raw meat is contaminated with E coli, the cooking process should kill the contamination (if they’re cooked to the proper temperature). But what about the employees who handle the contaminated meat? Imagine someone in the kitchen preps contaminated raw beef for cooking, and then, without proper hand washing, cuts up the lettuce for the side salad. That lettuce is served cold — no heat, no E coli control between the cutting and your plate.

Or it could even be that the lettuce is already contaminated with E coli. It is not uncommon for produce to come into contact with animal feces, and organic produce, being as it is reliant on “natural” fertilizers like cow manure, carries a higher potential risk of fecal matter contamination.

One final thing to note is that this E coli outbreak wasn’t the first contamination problem Chipotle had last year. It wasn’t even the second. It was at least the third such outbreak, following an August norovirus contamination and a August/September salmonella contamination. Also, since the October E coli outbreak, Chipotle has also suffered from another norovirus contamination in Boston. If the five December E coli cases turn out to be from a different source than the October ones, that will make five incidents in the space of five months.

The idea that Chipotle has been sabotaged by Big Biotech is ludicrous. It is far more likely that some combination of problems — poor temperature control, poor sanitation, and  contaminated food — caused the Chipotle outbreak than it is that some heinous biotech terrorist dropped an E coli bomb on the chain. Mike Adams is, once again, favoring speculation and scare-mongering over sound science and analysis. It is a tragedy that so many continue to read his site.


About Alison Hudson

Alison is a writer and educator living near Ann Arbor, MI. She blogs regularly about skepticism, games, and the transgender experience.
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8 Responses to Did You Hear the One About Chipotle and the Pro-GMO Plot?

  1. Bill Kowalski says:

    If you will look at the numbers on GMO’s, you will see the biotech industry is doing quite well on its own merits without the need to poison our burrito supplies. Regardless, it is quite silly to think Chipotle Mexican Grill is somehow so important to the food industry that this chain would be singled out for food tampering. It would have to be an amazing conspiracy to accomplish this on a national scale, and the e.coli would have to get past the food safety practices in place at each restaurant. It would be much easier for the e.coli to be due to cross contamination from raw meat to uncooked items, to have come in on organic produce, or to be transferred from the dirty hands of a restaurant worker, as happened here in my town when there was a Hepatitis A outbreak due to poor hygiene at a Mexican restaurant.

    Having seen what is required for food safety compliance during my Food Protection Manager Certification classes, and having compared that to what I have seen in restaurant kitchens, I can assure the public that it’s plenty easy to find food safety violations. I’m not worried that the biotech people will try to contaminate our food, because the restaurant business is perfectly capable of doing that on its own.

    I’m a little more concerned about the significantly greater amounts of land, water and fuel required to grow non-GMO and organic products than about the biotech companies conspiring to poison our burritos. We do no longer have the resources to feed 7 billion+ people a non-GMO diet.

    • Nelson says:

      “We do no longer have the resources to feed 7 billion+ people a non-GMO diet.”

      Really Bill? Where did you learn that, from a Monsanto advertising slogan? Or was it from Syngenta? Or was it from doing that good old “science” you people here at Skeptoid are always talking about but rarely ever actually accomplish?

      • Bill Kowalski says:

        No need for ad hominem attacks – and if you do not care for the content on Skeptoid you are under no obligation to read it. I have a science education but have no connections with Syngenta and am unfamiliar with Monsanto’s advertising slogans. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations publishes quite a lot of detailed data on agriculture, as does the World Bank. From this data it can be seen that some 11% of the Earth’s land is now used for crops; there is about another 27% of the Earth’s land that could be used for some sort of agriculture; and in the past 50 years modern farming techniques have allowed farm productivity to double. Looking forward, we will need 70% more food by 2050 if current population trends continue; that amount of production would require a land area the size of our largest continent, Africa if crop yields remain the same as they are now; and along with billions of more mouths to feed, as fossil fuels run out and biofuels become more cost-effective we will likely see a substantial increase in crops grown for biofuels. A trend toward more organic crops has led to less efficient use of land, since organic methods generally require about twice the amount of land per bushel of production. Also, adding billions of people to the planet requires more living space, which will deduct from possible agricultural land as it is developed for residential use. Therefore one conclusion that could be drawn is there needs to be fast advances in crop science to allow higher land use efficiency. If we were to go to a more vegetarian diet, that would help considerably as animal feeds take up a tremendous amount of our crop capacity, so maybe the land pinch would not be a problem. Global climate changes currently underway may also either create more arable land or may reduce what could be used, it is hard to say. Also, when populations of any organism get out of line with the available resources, nature has a way of leveling things out, so we may not be dealing with the full projected population. I do hope for the best.

        • ausGeoff says:

          Unfortunately Bill, it’s people such as Nelson who invariably respond to statements of fact based on the empirical sciences with unqualified, often negatively-biased personal opinions. And no degree of personal opinion constitutes evidence. The pejorative phrase “you people here at Skeptoid” is the give-away in Nelson’s case. Rather than provide any meaningful input, backed by evidence, he simply disparages the people who are actually presenting the science-based evidence.

          It’s been estimated that the global population will reach 9 billion people by 2050, and that based on the projected viability of conventional food crops and arable land, that at that time there will be insufficient food to feed those nine billion—without large-scale GMO cropping. Already, 80% of our arable land is in use.

          Even now, on paper at least, we produce only enough food to feed our current population of 7 billion. Yet more than 800 million people go to bed hungry every night, and hidden hunger—or micronutrient deficiency—affects an additional 2 billion people. [Thomson Reuters]

          • Nelson says:

            Ok evidence based Skeptics, this article which spells out my point using 66 studies, 300 trial and 47 years in various forms written by Eric Holt Gimenez
            Executive Director, Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy

            Maybe ausgeoff thinks these studies and trials also constitute empirical evidence too! By the way I didn’t see any “evidence” presented by Bill just a statement with no references to peer reviewed studies or trials with conclusions about the future of the worlds food supply. Why is it that on this site the people who agree with the presenter can get away with making unsubstantiated statements but anyone having a different conclusion is merely their opinion not based on evidence? Much of this “We need GMO for the future” rhetoric come from the GMO industry which has at it’s heart the promotion of GMO based foods and therefor a monetary interest in having that be the thinking for future of the world or we will all starve. OH no I better go and start sprouting some sunflower seeds right now so I won’t go hungry. Or better yet hand me that supper sized GMO salmon that was just approved, I love a little bit of Eel with my fish. I take a side of tomatoes with some pig genes for extra flavor and it’s ability to not bruised.

            Notice in the following article there is no mention of the food industry having to resort to using GMO technology in being able to grow enough food for the growing population, that it is enough to just maximize conventional methods along with organic farming to get the job done.

            A new a study from McGill University and the University of Minnesota published in the journal Nature compared organic and conventional yields from 66 studies and over 300 trials. Researchers found that on average, conventional systems out-yielded organic farms by 25 percent — mostly for grains, and depending on conditions.

            Embracing the current conventional wisdom, the authors argue for a combination of conventional and organic farming to meet “the twin challenge of feeding a growing population, with rising demand for meat and high-calorie diets, while simultaneously minimizing its global environmental impacts.”

            Unfortunately, neither the study nor the conventional wisdom addresses the real cause of hunger.

            Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity. For the past two decades, the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth. The world already produces more than 1 ½ times enough food to feed everyone on the planet. That’s enough to feed 10 billion people, the population peak we expect by 2050. But the people making less than $2 a day — most of whom are resource-poor farmers cultivating enviably small plots of land — can’t afford to buy this food.

            In reality, the bulk of industrially-produced grain crops goes to biofuels and confined animal feedlots rather than food for the 1 billion hungry. The call to double food production by 2050 only applies if we continue to prioritize the growing population of livestock and automobiles over hungry people.

            But what about the contentious “yield gap” between conventional and organic farming?

            Actually, what this new study does tell us is how much smaller the yield gap is between organic and conventional farming than what critics of organic agriculture have assumed. In fact, for many crops and in many instances, it is minimal. With new advances in seed breeding for organic systems, and with the transition of commercial organic farms to diversified farming systems that have been shown to “overyield,” this yield gap will close even further.

            Rodale, the longest-running side-by-side study comparing conventional chemical agriculture with organic methods (now 47 years), found organic yields match conventional in good years and outperform them under drought conditions and environmental distress — a critical property as climate change increasingly serves up extreme weather conditions. Moreover, agroecological practices (basically, farming like a diversified ecosystem) render a higher resistance to extreme climate events which translate into lower vulnerability and higher long-term farm sustainability.

  2. ausGeoff says:

    I’m actually surprised that Mike Adams hasn’t at some stage breached the laws of slander or defamation considering that he frequently names individuals and businesses in his preposterous, unscientific claims about the GMO food industry. But I did have a guilty laugh at this classic non sequitur: “we also know the track record of the biotech industry engaging in the most criminal, dirty, sleazebag tactics imaginable against any person or company that speaks out against GMOs”.

    To counter all this, could I suggest that Adams is acting as a paid shill for the multi-billion dollar, so-called organic food production industry that continually misrepresents the scientifically-discredited, (non) existent benefits of organic foodstuffs?

    • Alison Hudson says:

      I think Adams glides under the radar because he really doesn’t really hurt those he slanders in any legally actionable way. No one cares because they all write him off as a fringe conspiracy nut. And if you think about it, despite his vast audience, what has Mike Adams really accomplished? At least nuts like the Food Babe got a couple of companies to kowtow to her ridiculous demands. Adams just rants.

      • Bill Kowalski says:

        If someone had told me thirty years ago that we were about to get a highly affordable new technology which would allow billions of people to instantly access stunning amounts of information and allow anyone to suddenly have a voice which could be heard around the world, with the ability to translate into other languages, I would immediately think, “That’s miraculous! What a wondrous time we are about to enter! Will this quantum leap in communication lead to greater understanding? Fewer wars? Will it be a platform for intelligent debate and consensus building, leading perhaps to the end of political division and bitter partisanship?”

        Well, nope, it didn’t turn out that way. Instead, it serves as a platform for haters who bray misinformation, for organizing terror attacks, for stealing personal information, for allowing people who probably would seem pretty normal in real life to post anonymous attacks on their fellow humans, and to connect a “vast audience” with false prophets of doom.

        Alas… I fear for what new miracles may befall us.

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