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General Mills puts the non-GMO in Cheerios

I was very young and I was acting abnormally, as if I had an earache or something. It was also strange that my nose was running — but only one side of my nose. Mom took me to the doctor who promptly diagnosed (or at least immediately suspected) the problem, got out his long tweezers and worked to induce a sneeze. Out came the cause — a partial Cheerio I had stuffed up my nose when my Mom was not looking.

Apparently this is genetic. I called my Mom a couple of years ago as my wife and I were concerned about our son’s strange behavior. Mom relayed the story from my youth and we investigated the situation — yep, Cheerio in the nose.

There are not many people who lack multiple first-hand experiences with the childhood staple of Cheerios. Maybe that is why there was such a stir when the Minnesota-based company recently announced that the original Cheerios (the yellow box) will now be free of genetically modified (GMO) ingredients. Only time will tell if this marketing ploy will generate a massive move by food manufacturers away from genetically modified ingredients, or simply slip under the radar of unconcerned consumers.

In early 2014, vice president of global communications for General Mills Tom Forsythe announced the change on his blog.

“Did we change Cheerios?” Forsythe wrote. “No. Not really.”

The reality is that Cheerios were comparatively easy to make GMO-free. In fact, the end product will be no different.

“Original Cheerios has always been made with whole grain oats, and there are no GMO oats. We do use a small amount of corn starch in cooking, and just one gram of sugar per serving for taste. And now that corn starch comes only from non-GM corn, and our sugar is only non-GM pure cane sugar,” Forsythe said. “What changed is how we source and handle certain ingredients in our plants.”

The Cheerios folks claim they weren’t pressured, but are simply responding to interest in the market.

“We did it because we think consumers may embrace it,” Forsythe said. “General Mills offers non-GM choices in most of our major categories in the U.S., and now we can say the same about the ingredients in original Cheerios.

“But 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.

“And it was never about pressure. In fact, this change is not much of a change at all. The product is essentially the same. The simple and unique nature of Cheerios made it possible — and we think consumers may embrace it.”

The change, though, was not as un-coerced as the folks at General Mills would have you believe. A year ago, a group called “GMO Inside” launched a social media campaign about the evils of genetically modified food ingredients, specifically targeting Cheerios. They drummed up 40,000 posts on Facebook pushing for a removal of GMO-ingredients from the popular cereal. They immediately hailed the changing Cheerio as a major win for consumers — a round crunchy symbol of the shopper’s right to choose.

“This is a huge victory for the non-GMO movement,” said John W Roulac, co-founder of GMO Inside. “History is being made today and more food brands will rush towards non-GMO foods.”

It is interesting though, that the initially targeted product was Cheerios, a cereal with oats as the main ingredient. This point was not lost on Rick Tolman, CEO of the National Corn Growers Association, who commented on the non-GMO Cheerio push through social media a year ago.

“Oddly and ironically enough, these social media loudmouths have chosen a product that is predominantly made from oats, a commodity that is not genetically modified. But of course, Cheerios was not targeted because it may contain GMOs, but because it is the most popular cereal brand General Mills produces and they are trying to bully General Mills into an anti-GM stance. Over on the Facebook page for Wheaties, there’s no GMO mention. Likewise at the Lucky Charms page,” Tolman said. “The preponderance of scientific information is more than clear. Advanced plant breeding using the modern tools of biotechnology is safe and a huge benefit to consumers, farmers, the poor and to the world in general. The United States has the best food safety system in the world and the efforts of narrow-minded Internet bullies should not deter us from continuing our system of labeling and oversight based on the principles of sound science.”

This change could have some interesting ramifications in the market place, or maybe it won’t. Will Cheerios be able to command a higher price now? It will be fascinating to watch how all of this unfolds. And, at least the next time I discover one of my children with a one-sided running nose, I can rest assured that nasal clogging culprit Cheerio will be free of genetic modification. Whew.

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  1. Matt,
    In 1992 or 3 when I was Associate Administrator of then ASCS now FSA I had a visit from a small delegation from General Mills Oat division. Their mission was to raise the Target Price for oats. “Really” I asked and why. Because we need more oats they said. You can’t get enough on the open market? They are too expensive they said. Where do you acquire your oats I asked? I kept narrowing the production area to learn they only used oats of the highest quality and that was north of I-90. I thanked them for their informative visit. I reported to the Administrator and the target price wasn’t raised. It would be hard to justify raising the Target Price for the nation’s production just to satisfy a specialty need.

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