In a move that says more about the increasing leverage of a well-honed campaign by consumers and activists than it does about sweeping changes to come in food processing, General Mills announced yesterday that regular Cheerios would soon be free of all genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
GMO Inside and Green America, two groups that had spearheaded an effort over the last year to get “consumers to put pressure on General Mills to make Cheerios without GMOs due to concerns over the health and environmental impacts of GMOs,” put out a PR Newswire release declaring a “Victory for Consumers.”
Green America Corporate Responsibility Director Todd Larsen said: “Original Cheerios in its famous yellow box will now be non-GMO and this victory sends a message to all food companies that consumers are increasingly looking for non-GMO products and companies need to meet that demand.”
Indeed, the policy affects only Cheerios in that yellow box, which mostly consist of oats that are not genetically engineered in the first place. General Mills will be finding new sources for the cornstarch and sugar that’s also in the product. But varieties such as Honey Nut, Multi Grain Cheerios, Peanut Butter and Chocolate Cheerios and the like will not be part of the effort.
“This is a big deal,” Larsen tells USA Today’s Bruce Horovitz. “Cheerios is an iconic brand and one of the leading breakfast cereals in the U.S. We don't know of any other example of such a major brand of packaged food, eaten by so many Americans, going from being GMO to non-GMO.”
The labels will note that trace amounts of GMO ingredients could be present due to the manufacturing process, according to company spokesman Mike Siemienas, as quoted by AP’s Candice Cho.
General Mills, however, made a point of declaring that “its decision on ingredients was not driven by safety concerns or pressure from critics,” Reuters’ Sakthi Prasad and Sampad Patnaik report, pointing out that they also market brands such as Betty Crocker dessert mixes and Yoplait yoghurt (which is embroiled in its own GMO controversy).
“It's not about safety. Biotech seeds, also known as genetically modified seeds, have been approved by global food safety agencies and widely used by farmers in global food crops for almost 20 years,” according to the post on Cheerios.com.
But the GM decision nonetheless goes down a path “most big food companies have rebuffed,” writes Annie Gasparro in the Wall Street Journal, “arguing that there is no evidence of any health problems resulting from GMOs despite decades of use. The food companies also generally have refused voluntarily labeling, saying it is costly and will give consumers a misconception that GMOs are harmful.”
Gasparro and Jason Dean do a fine job of summing up “What It All Means” in a separate piece. “It will add pressure on other brands to take similar measures, though rapid, sweeping change is highly unlikely,” they write.
If responses on the Cheerios Facebook page is any indication, though, many GMO zealots feel that the company is not going far enough fast enough. Some call on General Mills to go non-GMO with all of its products; others more rationally say that that “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients” does not go far enough and call on the company to get third-party verification of the absence of GMOs.
Others — though decidedly fewer — excoriated Kellogg for, as Wind Chapman puts it, “supporting misinformation by caving into what you think people want. If you buy into all the pseudo science that supports the non-GMO crowd, I don't think you should be making food for people.”
To be sure, some folks simply thanked Kellogg. “Hi General Mills! Thanks for listening,’ writes Marjorie Hastings.
Nathanael Johnson, who has been covering the GMO debate with heavily researched pieces for the environment website Grist since July, last week posted a bullet-pointed Q&A summation of what he has learned — and concluded — about everything from the impact on the environment to who is profiting to whether GMOs are safe to whether we need them to feed the hungry.
The balanced piece is worth the read, with links to “more nuance” if you want it. Johnson’s final query is “So should we label GMOs?” He writes: “This is opinion, not fact, but I think so. Look, it may not make much sense to fixate on this one particular technology, but like it or not, people are fixated. Labeling removes the fear of the unknown.”
As we’ve indicated before, labeling is where the battle will be. And we could be as soggy as this morning’s leftover Cheerios floating in organic whole milk, but transparency is likely to win the debate.