Is Chipotle a(n Ethical) Lesson in Opportunity Cost?

business_ethics_highlights_2Chipotle’s anti-GMO policies may win the burrito chain some customers, but those same policies take on a different ethical complexion when they are pursued to the apparent neglect of protecting customers from scientifically established – and potentially deadly – food-borne illnesses. Catering to customers’ peculiar beliefs about what makes food healthy or environmentally-friendly is at least innocuous when it is done in a supererogatory (“above and beyond the call of duty”) way. However, when catering to those beliefs is being pursued at the cost of meeting their bedrock duties to customers (in this case, meeting minimal standards of safety in food handling and preparation), Chipotle is rightfully being called out. Avoiding GMOs is ethical window dressing compared to avoiding E. coli and salmonella poisoning. If Chipotle can only do one (and, so far, Chipotle’s demonstrated that they can’t do both), focusing on safe food handling and preparation, and not on anti-GMO sourcing, is the better (and more ethical) option. >>>

LINK: Was Chipotle too busy avoiding the fake dangers of GMOs to focus on actual food safety? (by Timothy B. Lee for Vox)

The news about Chipotle’s food safety record keeps getting worse. In recent months, people in California, Washington state, Minnesota, and elsewhere have gotten sick after eating at Chipotle. Earlier this week, we learned that more than 100 Boston College students had become ill after eating at a local Chipotle. Then on Thursday, health officials closed a Chipotle location in Seattle due to repeated health code violations.

So rather than pandering to groundless fears about GMO safety, Chipotle would have served its customers better by focusing on the very real dangers of food tainted with E. coli, norovirus, or salmonella. Theoretically, it should be able to do both, of course, but like any organization Chipotle has limited resources. A dollar it spends guarding against the overblown threat of GMOs is a dollar it can’t devote to preventing actual health problems.

What do you think?

RELATED: Chris MacDonald’s discussion of CSR as a smokescreen in his Business Ethics Blog post, “Down With CSR! Up With Business Ethics!”

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  1. Pingback: Top 10 Business Ethics Stories of 2015 | The Business Ethics Blog

  2. john kotab

    Here’s a humdinger: These two issues are actually quite inter-related. . .
    I should start by mentioning that E. Coli has many strains, one of which resides in the guts of basically everyone (these are called physiological e. coli strains in the medical world). The health of this colony of E. Coli , as well as the other colonies of commensal gut bacteria, is a very good predictor of whether salmonella, pathogenic strains of E. Coli, C. Difficile, etc. get a foothold in the labyrinthine real estate of the intestines where they can do their worst.
    Further, while I am a proponent of non-GMO farming, it only scratches the surface and is indeed a lesser issue. You can horribly abuse the soil and the health of your plants without using GMO seeds or bacteria. A much larger concern is what the GMO tech is. It is a tool and can be used for benefit or harm. In our current paradigm, nearly all GMO tech involves making a crop resistant to poison, like glyphosate, or the more-recent dicamba. This allows a farmer to haphazardly spray away and not consider the soil life. Down below, the very high levels of these poisons (some neo-nicotinoids, for example, take 5-10 years to break down. All the while the farmer is spraying a new layer for the soil-life to contend with every year) neutralize or greatly simplify the biodiversity of micro-organisms. Glyphosate, for example, while labeled as an herbicide, is largely recognized by most enviro and plant scientists as a biocide — an indiscriminate killer — of micro-organisms including fungus and protozoa. Thus it has a broad-spectrum antibiotic effect. Just as in the gut of humans (and most animals, all the way down to insects), the health of the whole relies on the health of the micro-colonies and their diverse occupation of the “real estate” in the gut, lymph tract, genitalia, sinuses, etc. Without the “good” bacteria, the “bad” bacteria are much more likely and able to proliferate and take over. There was always salmonella and other “bad” bacteria in the soil (and in your gut, by the way), the broad-spectrum biocide action of man-made chemicals was simply better at eradicating the “good” bacteria than the opportunistic “bad” bacteria. They respond to disturbance in the ecology they inhabit. Man has carelessly brought about such disturbance, and they have all-to-often responded.

    With that, I’d ensure you that stepping away from poison-based food-production techniques is one of the best steps we can take to reducing the food poisoning problem in the United States. That, and get living, probiotic food back into that diet!

    On a side note, it would seem to me that of all the times I’ve gotten sick from meat / veggies at a restaurant, they were absolutely cooked half the time. Its as if they were so full of pathogenic bacteria, and the toxins they produce, that cooking was enough to kill them, but not to unravel the toxins, and so I got sick anyway. Any thoughts to that?

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