Like chalk and cheese: Is Chipotle really GMO free?

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Tomato And CheeseWe have to give a shout-out to Levi Gadye over at for his informative article You Can Thank Genetic Engineering For Your Delicious Cheese. Unbeknown to most, GMOs are used to make about 80 to 90 percent of cheese around today. Gadye explains the development behind this process, as well as why GMO-produced cheese makes it difficult to say whether foods from companies like Chipotle are really GMO free.

Rennet enzymes, which break down and coagulate milk proteins, are required to produce most cheese. And up until about 30 years ago, these enzymes came from calf stomachs. Yes baby cows had to be slaughtered, and cheese makers would use small pieces of their stomachs to coagulate milk into cheese.

Using this method, cheese business was booming. But by the 1970s, cheese makers began experiencing some serious problems. First, the demand for meat had risen, so adult cattle were a better investment than calves. This prompted meal suppliers to allow their cows to grow up before slaughter. The animal rights movement was also becoming prominent. What resulted was a sharp decline in the rennet supply.

Meanwhile, the field of genetic engineering was advancing. In 1982, Genentech earned FDA approval for the medical use of insulin produced by genetically modified microbes (yes, you have GMOs to thank for insulin too). And this accomplishment suggested a similar technique could be used to produce the key enzyme in rennet chymosin.

Gadye explains, In the late 80s, scientists at Pfizer successfully inserted the calf chymosin gene into Escherichia coli. This transformed the bacteria into chymosin-synthesizing powerhouses; the genetically modified E. coli strain could generate large quantities of the mammalian enzyme in the absence of the animals themselves. In 1990, the FDA approved Pfizer s GMO-derived chymosin for human consumption, on the basis that it was identical to the chymosin found in animal rennet.

This chymosin derived from GMOs, called Fermentation-Produced Chymosin (FPC), is estimated to make about 80 to 90 percent of today s cheese in the US and UK. This technology has truly transformed the industry, making it more efficient, more environmentally friendly, and less dependent on animals.

Gadye brings up the complicated issue of whether cheese made with FPC is considered GMO or not: Cheese, in other words, may be an unambiguous product of genetic engineering, but it is two steps removed from the genetically modified organism responsible for its existence. This raises difficult questions for consumers and companies with a taste for cheese and a distaste for GMOs. Is it right to love the sinner, but hate the sin?

As a specific example, he calls out Chipotle. Last year, Chipotle was publicly asked whether they use cheese made with GMO-derived FPC. They gave a vague, confusing answer: they responded their cheese is produced using an FPC rennet that is not GMO. They never clarified the opaque response. So the question stands why soybean oil, made from GMO soy plants, was publicly eliminated by Chipotle on the basis of its GMO origins, while cheese made using GMO-derived FPC got a free pass. One might argue that cheese made using FPC is one step further removed from its GMO microbe than soybean oil is from GMO soy plants. Nevertheless, a GMO byproduct, and not the GMO itself, remains in both final products ¦It s safe to assume that even though Chipotle claims to have gone GMO-free, the FPC used to make its cheese is still sourced from GMOs, just like the sugar in its sodas, and the feed used to raise its meat.

That s correct while Chipotle did remove previously-used GMO corn and soybeans from its tortillas and cooking oil, genetic engineering is still used to produce a variety of its ingredients. It s almost as if their G-M-Over It campaign has everything to do with marketing and very little to do with actual science. But thanks to fear-mongering and rampant misinformation about GMOs, that message somehow apparently makes their calorie and fat laden burritos seem healthier to their customers.

ACSH s Dr. Ruth Kava notes The complicated definition of GMO-free is just one reason why state-mandated GMO labeling laws are bad ideas. Would every state have their own definition of GMOs? Just asking.