Experts Respond to General Mills’ Cheerios Announcement
UPDATE: On Jan. 2, General Mills announced that original Cheerios would be sourced from non-GMO ingredients. According to a Food Business News article released on Feb. 19, the company has chosen not to formulate more GMO-free products, due to a lack of increase in sales performance. The full article is available here.
Basically, this was not hard for General Mills to do since the only possible GMO ingredients in Cheerios would be corn starch and sugar. There are no GMO oats or wheat which are the other ingredients. My personal thought is that General Mills is tapping into the market of moms who see Cheerios as a safe first food for their babies and they want to appease that market. Using a ‘no-GMO’ label has been allowed by the FDA for years, so this did not require any new regulations. I will be curious to see how the other members of the industry respond, likely there will be some other brands jumping onto this bandwagon. I am sad to see that because it really is continuing to spread that fear among consumers that there must be something unsafe about GMOs if the industry is now taking them out of their foods.
We believe food companies have the right to select the ingredients that are best for their markets, just as farmers have the right to choose the seeds that are right for their businesses. We appreciated General Mills transparency in this regard. General Mills did a good job explaining the change and reinforcing the safety of GMOs. (General Mills’ statements are available online: http://blog.generalmills.com/2014/01/the-one-and-only-cheerios and http://cheerios.com/en/Articles/cheerios-and-gmos. General Mills’ position on GMOs has not changed. (General Mills’ position on GMOs is available online: http://www.generalmills.com/Home/ChannelG/on_biotechnology.aspx. This was a marketing decision.
We stand by the nutrition and safety of products containing GMO ingredients, but as importantly, we support companies’ and consumers’ rights to choose non-GMO foods. In a sense, making this new option available to consumers is consistent with our support for market-based voluntary labeling and demonstrates that the voluntary system we have in place works. This is a good example of how food companies can voluntarily and truthfully label products and provide choices for their customers. (See other responses on the industry’s position on labeling: http://gmoanswers.com/ask/why-are-companies-against-gmo-labeling-if-its-safe-they-shouldnt-care-whether-they-have-label-it)
It might help to provide here some additional technical information. Since the primary ingredient in Cheerios is oats, and oats are not grown from genetically modified seed, General Mills will be changing how it sources and handles two of the cereal’s minor ingredients – corn starch and sugar. The corn starch will now be derived from conventionally bred corn, and the sugar will come from sugar cane, rather than sugar beets.
Before the change, the corn starch and the sugar were derived from GMO crops and are therefore considered GMO ingredients. This is the case even though, through processing, one cannot tell the difference between GMO and non-GMO sugar or starch. They are chemically the same.
It is important for consumers to understand a couple of points about the recent General Mills decision to use only non-GM ingredients in their Cheerios cereal:
First, the company is well aware of and even states that they know that GM ingredients are safe and have been regulated by FDA and other government agencies since their inception.
There are very few ingredients in Cheerios that are actually derived through genetic modification, which are corn starch and sugars. The bulk of ingredients that make up Cheerios are oats or wheat and none of these commodities have been modified using biotechnology. Therefore, Cheerios will not change in any significant way.
Third, the modified ingredients that General Mills has been using in their Cheerios to date are not any different than the non-modified ingredients they will be using in the future and the company knows this as well.
So this leads to one conclusion which is; General Mills is producing a product that they think the consumers of Cheerios will want to buy. Yes, it is a potential marketing advantage for the company and for this product, but unfortunately consumers are not necessarily getting something that is safer, more nutritious or even better in any way.
Having worked at the Grocery Manufacturers Association for several years when food biotechnology was being used in products for the first time in the US, I fully understand the nature of companies who want to protect a brand that is sacred while still providing a safe, consistent and affordable product their customers demand. All while meeting regulatory requirements and standards issued by our federal agencies. It is a balancing act for sure. General Mills is a very progressive company that stays abreast of trends and changes in the marketplace. They were the first to agree to use only whole grains in their flagship brand cereals several years ago when whole grains were highlighted as necessary for a healthy diet in the Dietary Guidelines report. The decision to eliminate GM ingredients from Cheerios is one that many companies have been discussing for the past couple of years. General Mills was just the first packaged food company to move forward with a decision to produce a non-GM product.
The final but sad fact is that consumers don't necessarily win in the end. This begs for more public understanding of biotechnology specifically and food production in general. If we can achieve that then consumers won't be so easily swayed by marketing alone and will know when real concerns are warranted.
GM crops are simply no different in health and safety than any other crop, and in particular, the starch and sugar of GM origin that might or might not be present in Cheerios is indistinguishable from the non-Gm counterpart. GM crops are on balance demonstrably better for the environment and have a smaller carbon footprint than conventional or organic crops. Opposition to them and the call for labeling makes no scientific sense, but it is a smart business tactic for those who stand to benefit from the significantly higher prices that inevitably flow from mandatory labeling and GM free products. One wonders if the management at General Mills even understands their own market. As they point out, they make many GM free and organic alternatives. Refusal to label Cheerios or make them GM free could well drive a few--and I think it's very few indeed--to buy their own more costly alternatives.
When I think of Cheerios, I don’t think about GMOs. I think about little kids—and right now, I’m thinking about my new grandson.
He was born just before Christmas in Michigan. My wife, my youngest daughter and I flew from our farm in North Dakota to be with them, but a big blizzard and sub-zero temperatures have kept us from leaving.
So we’re snowbound, with extra time to spoil our grandson! That’s the first job of grandparents, of course.
He doesn’t do much right now except sleep and eat. Before long, of course, he’ll roll over, sit up, and laugh. In a few months, he’ll try his first bites of solid food.
I’m pretty sure it will be Cheerios. I look forward to the day when I can spread the cereal on the tray of his highchair and watch him play and eat.
He’ll probably even throw a few loops at me.
When it happens, the phony controversy over genetically modified food won’t be foremost in my mind—but right now, it’s hard to look at a yellow box of Cheerios and not think about last week’s announcement by General Mills to quit using GMO ingredients in its original variety of the popular cereal.
A few in the media have portrayed the decision as a kind of political victory: “Under pressure from activists, Cheerios switched to non-GMO ingredients,” said the headline of a CNN story.
Yet they’re missing the bigger picture. General Mills simply made a business decision to offer some customers another choice.
In the statements surrounding its decision, General Mills has made clear that it fully supports biotechnology in agriculture: “There is broad consensus among major global scientific and regulatory bodies that approved genetically modified foods are safe.” It cites the support of the World Health Organization, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and other groups: “All have found approved biotech crops to be as safe and acceptable as their conventional counterparts.”
Although General Mills has been a strong supporter of agricultural technology it’s also a major food company with a wide range of products. To meet the demands of a vast marketplace, it puts out more than a hundred brands of cereals, baking goods, and snacks.
A small minority of consumers prefers food with non-GMO ingredients. So General Mills also offers organic products, which of course do not contain GMO ingredients. The original variety of Cheerios won’t be an organic food, but now it will try to appeal to this sliver of the population.
Oats are the primary main ingredient in Cheerios, and there’s no such thing as a genetically modified oat. Becoming a non-GMO product means only that original Cheerios won’t contain cornstarch and sugar from GMO sources. These were in very small amounts anyway.
Significantly, other varieties of Cheerios will keep their safe and healthy GMO ingredients, from crops such as corn, soybeans, and sugar beets. This includes Honey Nut Cheerios, which is my wife’s favorite flavor. One of the newer flavors, Peanut Butter Cheerios, can look forward to the day in the near future when biotechnology allows farmers to grow non-allergenic peanuts.
The Cheerios decision also exposes the silliness of the various state and federal campaigns to require costly labels for foods with GMO ingredients: Consumers already benefit from huge amounts of choices and information. And there's nothing wrong with GMO Cheerios. No sound science exists that suggests GMO foods are bad for our babies or ourselves.
As a fourth generation American Farmer, I recognize that GMO food technology is a major piece of the puzzle when looking into the future and being able to supply enough food and fiber in an efficient, sustainable and safe manner. And I do care about the future for my grandson, the 6th generation to possibly operate our family farm in North Dakota.
The bottom line is that most people will remain comfortable with mainstream GMO foods, but some will choose to avoid them—and now General Mills has decided Cheerios will become just another option.
Babies of course won’t know the difference. They’ll grow up strong and healthy, just like they have for many generations before, eating whatever kind of Cheerios we put in front of them.
Terry Wanzek grows wheat, corn, soybean and pinto beans on a family farm in North Dakota. He serves as a ND State Senator and volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.