Judge Denies Chipotle's Motion to Dismiss GMO Lawsuit

PHOTO: A Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant is seen in Washington, Dec. 22, 2015. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
A Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant is seen in Washington, Dec. 22, 2015.

A lawsuit accusing Chipotle of "purposefully misrepresenting" that its food does not contain organisms that have been genetically modified can move forward, a judge ruled Wednesday.

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The plaintiff, Leslie Reilly of Florida, sued Chipotle in September 2015, explaining that she paid a "premium price" for Chipotle's food only because she believed it did not contain GMOs, or genetically-modified organisms. While the Denver-based chain claims on its website that it is the first national restaurant company “to cook only with non-GMO ingredients,” it also acknowledges that the meat and dairy served at its restaurants are likely to come "from animals given at least some GMO feed."

But Reilly’s complaint alleges that “meat and dairy products that come from animals that consume GMO feed are in fact GMO products.” The complaint also says Chipotle’s marketing of its food as containing only non-GMO ingredients constitutes “unfair and deceptive practices."

"Based on her understanding of GMO products, [Reilly] interpreted Chipotle's advertisements to mean that its animals were not raised on GMO feed," according to U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Cooke’s ruling on Wednesday.

The judge indicated that while Chipotle doesn’t agree with Reilly’s interpretation of GMO products, it will be up to the trial court to determine if Reilly’s interpretation is reasonable to consumers.

Cooke’s ruling denied certain parts of Chipotle's motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which is seeking class action status. A trial date was set for November.

An attorney for Reilly said she’s pleased with the court’s order and she looks forward to trying the case before a jury in November.

“This action was brought to level the playing field and make sure consumers are adequately informed about what they are spending their money on and consuming,” attorney Sarah Engel told ABC News in a statement

Chipotle began voluntarily disclosing the presence of GMOs in its food in 2013. The restaurant chain often touts the tagline, "Food with integrity."

"In 2015, we succeeded in our quest to switch to serving food made only with non-GMO ingredients," the company states on its website. Chipotle explains that its meat and dairy products come from animals that are not genetically modified, but that "most animal feed in the U.S. is genetically modified," according to its website.

While both sides of the case argued about the definitions of GMOs, Judge Cooke wrote in the court order yesterday that "more evidence is needed to establish both a definition of the term and whether a reasonable consumer would share Ms. Reilly’s interpretation of the term."

A spokesman for Chipotle said the company plans to fight the case.

"We don't typically speak to details surrounding pending legal action, but believe there is no merit in this suit and will contest it," Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said in a statement.

Chipotle explains on its website that it's "working hard" on sourcing meat and dairy exclusively from animals that are not raised on GMO feed.

The company also notes that many of the beverages it sells contain GMOs, including those with high fructose corn syrup, "which is almost always made from GMO corn."

Eighty percent of conventional processed food in the U.S. contains a genetically-modified organism, according to the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit organization that verifies GMO ingredients in food. The most common GMO crops in the U.S. are corn, soy, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, cotton and papaya.

A federal judge in the Northern District of California dismissed a lawsuit with similar claims earlier this month after the plaintiff decided to withdraw. The attorneys for the plaintiff did not respond to a request for comment.

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