Chipotle continues its notable advance as a 21st Century Leadership success story.
The popular restaurant chain recently announced that it has banned genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from its ingredients.
This is a widely applauded step. It enables Chipotle to maintain its leadership role in providing healthy alternatives that meet consumers’ wishes.
Chipotle recognizes that advancing the values of those they serve creates value.
Nonetheless, as with any such leadership, there are questions—and there are critics.
Companies as De Facto Regulatory Agencies
Chipotle is in good company in meeting consumer demand for products that exceed regulatory standards.
Pizza Hut and Taco Bell are phasing out artificial ingredients.
Chipotle, Chik fil A, McDonald’s, Panera’s, and Tyson Foods are in the process of phasing out antibiotics in chicken. WalMart and other retailers are following in their wake–and catalyzing change through the supply chain, around the world.
Whole Foods is committed to disclosing the presence of GMOs in the items they sell.
Taken together, these corporate efforts to meet rising demand for healthful food constitute a historic change.
There was a time when government certifications of inspection and approval lent consumer credibility. Now, many see government requirements as the floor of what is expected.
In a time when official regulatory agencies have not earned public confidence, they no longer have the last word. They may not even have the first word. Many people simply choose to trust their own instincts, rather than accept assurances from “on high.” So, too, many people reject assertions of scientific authority from other sources.
In the new world of 21st century leadership, compliance with government standards is necessary, but no longer sufficient. Consumers are finding value in higher standards. To be sure, some may be ignorant of the scientific issues. Others may well be sophisticated, applying cautious risk calculations. Everyone knows that some activities and substances declared by authorities to be “safe” have turned out to be highly problematic over time.
This might be seen as an area of rising customization. It may be that consumers will segment in new directions. Some may be willing to pay additional money for their beliefs in what is healthful for themselves and fair for others. Others may reach different conclusions.
Chipotle and Science and Service
It’s hard to dispute that Chipotle is creating value through serving its growing customer base.
Nonetheless, some critics contend that Chipotle is acting in a discreditable way.
To be sure, any action by a company is liable to be dismissed by critics as self-interested. Nonetheless, this is a somewhat peculiar line of criticism from free market devotees. One might think they would be heartened to see value created by advancing the values of those served. Surely they would also recognize the potential for increasing public understanding from businesses making competing cases for their products.
In a curmudgeonly piece in the Wall Street Journal, Holman Jenkins Jr. decries the Chipotle decision and the trend it represents: “Chipotle is not really on a crusade for healthier eating but trying to sell more burritos.”
Jenkins’s line of attack is altogether predictable if a bit off-key:
—If Chipotle provides food that consumers prefer–and if they conclude it’s a healthy choice by removing whatever risk GMOs might present—why does the company’s motivation matter?
—Why should the Wall Street Journal, of all publications, find reason to criticize the management of a company that it concedes is serving its consumers and stockholders and other stakeholders effectively?
—Jenkins ridicules widespread suspicion of GMOs in the food supply. To be sure, the consensus of the National Academies of Science and other authoritative bodies is that such concerns are overblown if not altogether misplaced. Chipotle has not put itself forward as a scientific body. It’s co-CEO explains: “They say the ingredients are safe, but I think we all know we’d rather have food that doesn’t contain them.” That would be a dubious rationale for a government regulatory agency setting universal standards, yet it’s entirely within the rights of companies serving customers.
—In a curious roundabout, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Mr. Jenkins express skepticism bordering on contempt for the scientific consensus in the case of climate change. That is their right. They can accept or reject the findings of the National Academies of Science. Nonetheless, their position as an outlier on climate change might prompt them to accord respect to those who make a corresponding choice in respect of GMOs.
Certainly, if Chipotle and other companies are unable to make the market case for higher costs based on their commitments to high standards, they will be undercut by competitors in short order.
So, too, it is likely to the good that competing companies are going to educate the public as they come to terms with evolving science and public opinion on food safety. At the least, they may increase general understanding of the kinds of economic trade-offs that must be made in real-world decisions on public health risk.
A Positive Trend
There can be no disagreement on one point: the American people are woefully ignorant on basic questions of science and public health.
That poll tells us little about science. It reveals a lot about public mistrust of authority.
What is the remedy for correcting misplaced public fears or passing enthusiasms?
Mr. Jenkins suggests that it’s irresponsible to profit by catering to such prejudices or enthusiasms. Presumably, he would have companies ignore and override such concerns where the public views are not consistent with his own.
The contretemps over public health is a current manifestation of a perennial issue.
I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.
This approach would serve consumers as well as citizens.
What About You?
Do you support Chipotle’s GMO ban? Will it prompt you to consume more of their products? Will you hold competing offerings to the Chipotle standard?
Do you avoid foods that include GMOs?
As a consumer, do you reward companies that act consistently with your values?
As a producer, are you creating value through advancing the values of your customers?
As a citizen, are you using 21st century leadership tools effectively?
Chipotle and Science and Service