Original Cheerios will now be labeled with "Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients." Because Cheerios are made in facilities that also manufacture GMO foods, the boxes will also contain a warning that they may contain trace amounts of GMO foods.
General Mills says it was able to make original Cheerios non-GMO because the main ingredient is whole grain oats, and there are no GMO oats. The cereal’s formula hasn’t changed. Instead, the company has swapped out the only GM ingredients in original Cheerios—corn starch and beet sugar—for non-GMO corn starch and cane sugar.
“The simple and unique nature of our product made it possible to label original Cheerios as not being made with genetically modified ingredients,” it said in a Q&A posted on Cheerios.com this week.
It took General Mills nearly a year and “significant” investments in new systems at its production facilities to separate the non-GMO ingredients used to make original Cheerios from the other product lines.
Victory belongs to consumers?
Consumer advocacy group Green America’s GMO Inside campaign claimed victory in General Mills’ move—and a spokesperson added that the campaign was first to break the news.
“I want to thank all the GMO Insiders for using social media to convince America's largest packed food brand to go non-GMO with a major product,” said John W Roulac, GMO Inside co-founder and co-chair, in a statement issued Thursday. “History is being made today and more food brands will rush towards non-GMO foods."
The GMO Inside campaign, which launched in November 2012, called on consumers to use social media channels to pressure General Mills to stop using GM ingredients to produce Cheerios. According to the campaign, 40,000 consumers took to Cheerios’ Facebook page to air their concerns about GMOs, and another 25,000 consumers emailed and called the company as part of the yearlong campaign.
General Mills: The move was not because of consumer pressure
But General Mills spokesperson Kirstie Foster told FoodNavigator-USA that the move was neither due to pressure from consumer groups nor safety concerns about biotech. She pointed to a recent entry on General Mills' blog, in which the company says:
"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."
Regardless, GMO Inside said that it is now encouraging General Mills to make all Cheerios non-GMO—given that the top-selling cereal brand is often "one of the first solid foods" fed to babies, and that all Cheerios cereals sold in Europe are already produced without GMOs.
General Mills admitted that such an undertaking would be extremely challenging, given that some Cheerios varieties use other grains, such as corn, that may be grown from GM seed. Plus, the agricultural and regulatory environments in the US and Europe are quite different, as Foster noted.
“For our other cereals, the widespread use of GM seed in crops such as corn, soy, or beet sugar would make reliably moving to non-GM ingredients difficult, if not impossible,” the company said. “General Mills produces several organic cereals that by definition cannot use GM ingredients—and sell those products nationally—so we already offer consumers a wide range of non-GM cereal choices.”
On its website, General Mills also noted that while it has long (and publicly) opposed state-by-state labeling laws, the company supports a national standard for labeling non-GM products, noting that there are government-approved standards in both Europe and Canada.