General Mills sent shocks through the food world earlier this month when it announced that its flagship Cheerios cereal will be made without GMOs. At first blush it sounds like a victory for activists and consumer groups, who have been turning up the heat on many food companies lately around “natural” claims for food products that contain GMOs (such as Chobani) and supporting state by state legislation for mandatory GMO labeling. But like anything, the devil is in the details. First, the Facts
What do you need to know? Here are the 5 facts that I believe are worth knowing:
- Only the original Cheerios will be made without GMOs . All other 11 versions of Cheerios will still contain GMOs.
- Rather than touting “the more common “GMO-free”, the labeling will state “Not made with Genetically Modified Ingredients”, because Cheerios are made in facilities that also manufacture GMO foods.
- The oats used in all of the Cheerios brands have never contained GMOs, but General Mills swapped 2 other ingredients to non-GMO sources: corn starch and cane sugar (instead of conventional beet sugar) to achieve the change.
- Cheerios - every single version - is already GMO-free in Europe.
- General Mills, the parent company, was a major contributor to defeating the high stakes GMO labeling legislation in Washington state.
Trying to Have it Both Ways?
So does this represent a major victory for the GMO movement, or an attempt to have it both ways that is only adding to consumer confusion and marketing clutter? Or perhaps something in the middle - say, a laudable first step for a cereal juggernaut to test consumer response, shore up new supply chains, and then move to more wholly to GMO-free products if the marketplace speaks loudly enough?
Personally, I am willing to wait and see on this one.
I have to question the intentions of a company that on one hand is touting their GMO-free brand while at the same time funding anti-GMO labeling legislation. I have read their reasoning here, but crave trust and transparency in my food. And a company that gushes about how great a non-GMO choice is for consumers while simultaneously promoting the safety and benefits of GMOs raises significant doubts for me about both trust and transparency. As Marion Nestle noted in a recent post on the topic:
“...by pouring money into fighting labeling, the biotech industry looks like it’s got plenty to hide.”
However, I know from my own work experience how incredibly difficult it can be for large companies - considering things like supply chain issues, labeling requirements, legal departments and manufacturing facilities - to pivot on a dime. While it’s incredibly easy in this age of social media saturation to quickly and ruthlessly point out what’s wrong with a particular company, if Cheerios’ move nudges other food makers to follow suit, it could truly change the food supply from the ground up - which is indeed good for us and good for the planet. Part of me wonders, does it matter if they phase it in in baby steps if we ultimately arrive at the same place? And I do have to give kudos to Cheerios for announcing this AFTER the changes have already been implemented. Far too often companies prefer to bask in the PR splash of a feel good announcement now, when a dig through the nitty gritty of specifics reveals said changes will actually be implemented further down the road (kind of like Congress).
So what do you think?
Will 2014 shape up to be the decisive year for GMO labeling? So far, so heated: earlier this week the FDA declined a request by the Grocery Manufacturers of America to adopt a definition of “natural” or to state whether ingredients derived from biotechnology - like GMOs - can be considered “natural”.
One thing is crystal clear: we vote with our wallets. And companies respond to consumer demand. Which means, that if you are really fired up about creating a more GMO-free supermarket, start by adding more organics (which are always GMO free) and certified GMO-free foods to your grocery cart.