Way to start 2014 for anti Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) consumers and activists! General Mills announced on January 2 that Original Cheerios, one of America’s favorite breakfast cereal brands, will now be GMO free. Or will it be?
A national poll showed that over 90% of the population support mandatory GMO labeling by law so that manufacturers would have to disclose the use of GMOs in food products. This topic has gained momentum in 2013 and the US population has learned more about GMOs along the way. It wasn’t enough against months of massive spending by the Big Food industry ($25MM, vs $8.4MM for the pro labeling in the Nov. 2013 campaign), as two successive state labeling attempts (California’s Prop 37 in November 2012 and Washington’s I-522 in November 2013) failed. Yet, could this move by General Mills be a first industry acknowledgment that the population’s wish will eventually prevail?
Here are the takeaways from the company’s PR statement:
1- No more corn and beet GMOs- The small amount of corn starch used in cooking will now come only from non-GMO corn and the “just one gram of sugar per serving for taste” will now only be non-GMO pure cane sugar, as opposed to GMO beet sugar.
2- Only Original Cheerios is ridden from GMO ingredients- All 13 other Cheerios varieties, like the popular Honey Nuts and Whole Grains, remain unchanged (read, with GMOs).
3- GMO free… or not?- Added under the ingredient list on the side of the box (also on the opposite side), the new text states: “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients. Trace amounts of GMO ingredients could be present due to contamination during the manufacturing process.” Since there is no official non GMO certification, and because General Mills’ plants also manufacture the other with GMO Cheerios, there will be risks of contamination. In clear, there is NO sure way to say the box of cereals you may purchase is 100% GMO-free.
4- No debut date for the new label- “On shelf soon” is all General Mills said about the switch date… A random store check showed the old boxes were on shelf on Jan. 4 in one store, but the new ones were up at another retailer on Jan. 8. They’re most likely going through their inventories to prepare for a phased-in (or soft) launch, unsurprisingly proving that profit comes first. Before any health concerns anyway.
Now, what are the learnings from this PR stunt by General Mills?
This was a very well played and publicized move by General Mills. A complete one too, with good, bad and muddy elements requiring clarification and perspective.
The good: This is a positive outcome to the anti GMO movement’s repeated pushes on the Big Food Industry
No matter how General Mills pretties it up, this is clearly a case of a big company caving to ongoing, growing public pressure
- The media coverage of the news will help increase consumers’ awareness and reach around GMOs
- The resulting momentum will support anti GMO movements in asking the food industry for complete GMO removal
- General Mills’ competitors are expected to promptly follow suit for a chance to keep their market shares intact
But it is also a win for General Mills…
- From a sales perspective- In a decreasing US cereal market (-2.5% in cereal market sales 2013 vs 2012 and -7% for Cheerios sales), this was very timely to try and regain consumers’ attention and help boost sales by taping into the GMO wary consumers market. Proof, if needed, that it’s been deemed big enough to go after!
From a marketing perspective- Great story-telling material: Good for consumers wary of GMOs, with no change for those who didn’t fear GMOs before. No risk to lose market share, only upsides. Note that General Mills prettied things up quite a bit mentioning big investments, over a year worth of supply chain adjustment… One should know that corporate America is slow by nature (many processes, more back and forth, and even more approvals needed), especially with supply chain changes. That’s just the nature of the beast. So nothing unusual with this timing.
- From a product perspective- Risk-free move: Oat is the primary ingredient in Original Cheerios, and like General Mills acknowledged, there’s no GMO oats in the US. So it wasn’t a change in recipe, only an “un-tastable” change in the sourcing of 2 minor ingredients, cornstarch and beet, that provides somewhat of a good image to Cheerios and gives General Mills a stronger presence in the “green” cereals (organic, non-GMO) market.
Now for the not-so-good news, mostly for us consumers…
General Mills reaffirmed their belief in GMO safety- Also support a non-GMO label but NOT mandatory GMO labeling for products using them (unsurprising since most of their Cheerios varieties and other cereal brands contain GMOs!)
- Original Cheerios may likely still contain GMOs- From a health perspective, this sounds more like a status quo: Without official non GMO certification (like The non-GMO Project seal) or the USDA organic stamp (only real pesticide-free ingredients guarantee available to date), just like they acknowledged it, GMO contamination via ingredients from other lines in the plant is possible.
Other Cheerios varieties will not change, whether now or later- Anticipating a request for similar changes across the brand lineup, General Mills straight out nipped it in the bud, saying it’s impossible to do given the widespread use of GM seeds in the US (corn, soy and beets)… Now, in all seriousness, the power in trade negotiations being driven by production volumes, it is 100% on General Mills’ side if they decide to switch to conventional (non-GMO) seeds. Just like they already do in Europe where GMOs are forbidden by law in human foods!
With all this, should we feel safe buying these “new” cereals? Probably not… General Mills “seems” to have finally acknowledged the persistent and growing call to remove GMOs, but making this small commitment to their biggest (as in easiest to modify) Cheerios variety was not that hard and it happened because they’ll for sure rip up more benefits than it cost them in the first place. And that includes the much valued historic prize of being first to market with a mainstream highly processed cereal recipe that is GMO free. Watch all other US Big Food CPG manufacturers catch up in the coming months…
Still not convinced? Then, besides the other Cheerios recipes, what about ridding all of their other highly processed cereal brands, like Lucky Charms (need I say more?), Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Reeses Puffs, Chex Corn… ? Also keep in mind that with or without GMO, Cheerios are and remain highly processed food products in a box. And that will not make history with our health.
Now for a positive ending, and because that is where the real opportunity is, let’s hope that anti GMO activists can effectively amplify the change and durably leverage it with General Mills’ competitors.
What do You think? Buying? Not buying?