A California woman has filed a class action lawsuit in federal court against Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. (“Chipotle”) taking issue with Chipotle’s ads touting its restaurants as serving only ingredients that are free from genetically modified organisms (“GMOs”).
Colleen Gallagher alleges that Chipotle’s advertisements violated California’s Consumer Legal Remedies Act, Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1750, et seq.; False Advertising Law, Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17500, et seq.; and Unfair Competition Law, Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17200, et seq. because they did not mention that Chipotle used meat and dairy products (including sour cream and cheese) from animals that feed on GMOs, and sold soft drinks made with corn syrup. Gallagher also claims that Chipotle violated the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (“FDCA”) because its food labeling was misleading, false, and deceiving. She claims that as a result of the false advertisements and labeling, she and other similarly situated individuals paid more for Chipotle’s food than they would have paid for other products.
Gallagher acknowledges that Chipotle’s website contains disclaimers stating that “most animal feed in the US is genetically modified, which means that the meat and dairy served at Chipotle are likely to come from animals given at least some GMO feed” and that “many of the beverages sold in our restaurants contain genetically modified ingredients.” She argues, however, that fast-food customers would be unlikely to view such disclaimers online and would instead rely on the marketing messages that they see through social media, television, and print, which do not contain similar statements.
Gallagher’s suit is only the latest class action challenging “GMO-free” food product marketing, and taps into the ongoing debate over how to appropriately convey information about GMOs in food that humans consume. Vermont, Connecticut, and Maine have all enacted GMO labeling laws that have yet to go into effect. Meanwhile, the US House of Representatives passed H.R. 1559 on July 23rd which, if enacted into law, would prohibit state and local governments from mandating the labeling of foods made with GMOs, therefore invalidating state laws that have already been passed.
While the current debate regarding GMO-labeling is unlikely to be resolved soon, Chipotle will have to address the issue in the context of a false advertising claim in a venue that has been challenging for other food companies faced with similar allegations. The case is Gallagher v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., No. 15-03952 and is filed in the US District Court, Northern District of California.