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Chipotle becomes first major chain to go GMO-free

In a first for a major restaurant chain, Chipotle Mexican Grill on Monday will begin serving only food that is free of genetically engineered ingredients.

“This is another step toward the visions we have of changing the way people think about and eat fast food,” said Steve Ells, founder and co-chief executive of Chipotle. “Just because food is served fast doesn’t mean it has to be made with cheap raw ingredients, highly processed with preservatives and fillers and stabilizers and artificial colors and flavors.”

In 2013, Chipotle was the first restaurant chain to indicate which items contained genetically modified organisms, and a small but growing number of restaurants, largely in fine dining, also now label their menus.

Grocers, too, are moving to offer consumers more products free of genetically altered ingredients. The shelves and cases in Whole Foods stores are to be free of products containing such ingredients by 2018, and Walmart is vastly expanding its selection of organic foods, which are free of genetic alteration by law.

Even big food companies are moving to take genetically modified ingredients, or G.M.O.s, out of their products or to label products so that consumers know which are free of them.

Whether other major restaurant chains will follow Chipotle’s lead is uncertain. The increased demand for such products has made them more expensive and difficult to obtain in the amounts that big businesses need.

“Say that to live up to the promise of being non-G.M.O., you need a non-G.M.O. ingredient that accounts for just 1 percent of your formula,” said Nicole Bernard Dawes, founder and chief executive of Late July Snacks, which makes chips, crackers and other snacks from organic ingredients. “If you have a supply shortage in that ingredient, you can’t produce your product.”

Ridding the supply chain of genetically altered components is difficult. They lurk in baking powder, cornstarch and a variety of ingredients used as preservatives, coloring agents and added vitamins, as well as in commodities like canola and soy oils, corn meal and sugar.

Chipotle has run short of beef from time to time, and last December it announced that it could not supply all of its restaurants with the pork needed for carnitas after an audit found that one of its suppliers had failed to meet its standards for raising pigs.

That shortage continues, cutting into the company’s sales, and last week it said it probably would not be able to offer carnitas in all of its more than 1,800 restaurants until this fall.

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