There’s a Hole in the Cheerios Story

CheeriosIf your Facebook circles are anything like mine, you have seen memes calling out Cheerios for their use of GMOs. Over the last couple of years, Cheerios has become a specific target of GMO activists. It is estimated that over 75% of food on store shelves contain GMOs, so why then would Cheerios be specifically targeted? I think it is because moms who have trusted Cheerios to be a first finger food for their kids for decades felt especially deceived. It has been a staple cereal in homes where moms were concerned about avoiding sugary foods and Cheerios has continued to appeal to families as a better choice.

As more people learned about GMOs, more people felt betrayed and deceived by food manufacturers and regulating agencies who opted to introduce GMOs into our foods without our knowledge or permission. At the same time, these same food manufacturers were creating GMO free versions of their foods for other countries where labeling and/or bans are in place. And so, Cheerios faced a flurry of angry, passionate people who became relentless at every turn. It got so Cheerios could not make a post on their Facebook page about any topic without dozens of comments from people who said they refuse to buy Cheerios until they are GMO free.

It worked. Last week Cheerios announced that they are now using GMO free cornstarch and pure cane sugar in their cereal, but only the regular Cheerios. This should be a clear victory for GMO activists, and I believe it is, but with some added notes and caution.

The statement made on the Cheerios website regarding this switch is very pro GMO in wording. While they are making the change in the Cheerios brand, they are also defending the use of GMOs. I suppose General Mills has a vested interest to do that from a corporate standpoint, considering all of their other brands will still contain GMOs. A statement put out by General Mills says: “There is a broad consensus that foods containing GMOs is safe, but we decided to move forward with this in response to consumer demand.”

Cheerios falls back on the statement that the FDA and World Health Organization has deemed GMOs as safe. This is not exactly true. The FDA does not research the safety of GMOs. The FDA merely requires the biotech industry to submit their research for the FDA to evaluate. Human safety testing of GMOs is voluntary only, and currently no biotech company has opted to conduct such testing. The actual position of WHO is that there is no evidence GMOs have caused harm in countries where they have been approved. But, if there are no labels and consumers do not know that they are eating them, then there is no conversation being had among the general public with their doctors regarding the role GMOs might have in health conditions.

While General Mills is capitulating to consumer demands regarding GMOs, they also donated over 2 million dollars to defeat mandatory labeling during the last two years. General Mills has supported legislation or policy changes which would allow GMO ingredients to be labeled “natural”. In addition, General Mills boxes will now claim “This product is produced without the use of genetically modified ingredients”, but there will be no third party testing and the box will reportedly include an extra disclaimer which says the cereal could contain trace amounts of GMOs due to cross contamination.

Food activists who become passionate about GMOs tend to be very passionate about other aspects of food. Some of these activists are extremely unhappy with General Mills and consider this entire move to non GMO Cheerios to be a loss for “our side”. This is because it does not meet other qualities activists deem important such as being organic or being full of grains, which some believe damage health. Foodie bloggers have written about this being a loss because people will be lulled into believing Cheerios is healthy when it is still a non organic, processed cereal owned by a big corporation who is opposed to full disclosure labels with third party accountability. Some don’t think people should financially support a corporation who uses their profits to fight labeling efforts. Some activists, including me, have become passionate about supporting small, local farmers as much as possible because we know that in order to avoid this kind of deception again, we have to have a relationship with the people who produce our food.

The GMO issue is a complex one that begs for tighter regulation, corporate accountability, support of small farmers, evaluation of chemicals used in farming and many other issues. It is an issue that can introduce you to dozens of other health concerns within our food supply. But, the fight against GMOs requires that we have a clear, consistent mission with clear consistent demands. I don’t believe we can win this fight by switching up the rules based on our wide variety of food interests, when companies are trying to meet our demands. We can make our demands more clear; like demanding that Cheerios prove they removed GMOs through third party verification. But, if our goal is to gain transparency in our food supply about GMOs, or to get GMOs removed from certain products or all products, then we need to keep our focus there. If our goal is anti corporate or anti grains or anti conventional farming, then the conversation needs to be different from the outset.

Is General Mills latest move just a marketing ploy to make more money on the GMO issue and get the angry mob to stop posting damaging things about Cheerios on social media? Maybe so. But, the fact that we have influenced a large multinational corporation to change their product and generate mass national media attention to a cause that was largely invisible a few years ago is a major win. We have seen the power of the consumer speaking out. It should encourage us to speak out more often, more loudly and for our own sanity and unity, with more clarity.

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