Food giants General Mills and Post Foods both announced in the same month that their flagship Original Cheerios and Original Grape Nuts cereals will now say “Non-GMO” on the label, however, consumer watchdog groups fear that voluntary non-GMO claims may be meant to pre-empt any prospective state and federal mandatory GMO labeling efforts.
After contributing millions of dollars in campaign funding in 2012 and 2013 to oppose GMO labeling bills in California and Washington state, mainstream food manufacturer General Mills announced in early January 2014 that it has reformulated its flagship Original Cheerios cereal to remove GMOs from the product. The company said it had spent the past year sourcing non-GMO ingredients and changing some manufacturing practices, and beginning this month, Original Cheerios will now bear a non-GMO claim on the package.
General Mill’s non-GMO claim has not been verified by any third party agency, and the Original variety is the only Cheerios flavor to make the non-GMO claim. To respond to consumer questions, the company posted a non-GMO FAQ web page here.
Taking it one step further, cereal maker Post Foods announced just days later that its Original Grape Nuts variety is now Non-GMO Project Verified and U.S. consumers will see the familiar blue butterfly non-GMO seal on the front of the package in supermarkets across the country. Both Post and General Mills are members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), a mainstream food industry lobby group that has opposed mandatory GMO labeling measures.
Proponents of GMO transparency lauded the news, including the nonprofit GMO Inside, a project of Green America, which has targeted Cheerios for not disclosing its GMO ingredients in widespread social media campaigns. Given the historic stature of the brands - Grape Nuts was first introduced in 1897 by mainstream food pioneer C.W. Post, and General Mills first launched Cheerios in 1941 - plus their dominant position in the cereal aisle, the moves were heralded as a major step forward in GMO labeling and in exposing a far greater number of consumers to the issue of GMOs in food and agriculture.
GMO Inside continues to press General Mills; its current campaign calls for removing GMO ingredients from Honey Nut Cheerios, and for General Mills to engage a third-party verification service such as Non-GMO Project to ensure the authenticity of the company's non-GMO claims.
A Toe in the Non-GMO Water Granted, the main ingredients in Original Cheerios and Original Grape Nuts - oats and wheat, respectively - are essentially non-GMO, making the products relatively easy to reformulate. Yet, in sourcing non-GMO corn starch, non-GMO sweetener from sugar cane instead of GMO sugar beets, and other non-GMO ingredients, and investing in segregating production, these mainstream cereal giants for the first time are responding to clamoring consumer demand for GMO labeling and transparency. While the Original flavors of Cheerios and Grape Nuts are the only non-GMO offerings, Post said it is pursuing other potential non-GMO products.
It is a testament to the efforts of sustainable food and farming organizations, consumer advocacy groups, natural and organic industry supporters, and grass-roots campaigns behind mandatory GMO labeling bills in states and federal government over the past few years that prompted these mainstream food corporations to finally acknowledge GMO transparency by announcing their non-GMO product claims.
Too Good to be True? Industry watchdogs, however, warn that the claims made by General Mills and Post are strictly voluntary non-GMO claims only, while consumers remain largely unaware that the majority of conventionally processed foods contain GMOs without requiring any disclosure on the label. While non-GMO claims are laudable, proponents of GMO labeling transparency wonder if this may be part of a roundabout move by the mainstream grocery lobby to pre-empt mandatory state and federal GMO labeling measures in favor of being able to make voluntary non-GMO claims, or abide by voluntary or watered-down GMO labeling standards that will likely be full of exemptions and loopholes.
Food Safety News reported in early January that GMA lobbied Congress and federal regulators to allow foods containing GMOs to be called "natural." Also, in an internal letter outlining GMO talking points intended for food industry lobbyists, GMA warned that, "The first state to implement a GMO labeling law will be sued on the constitutional grounds seen in IDFA v. Amestoy. Litigation in this area could be long, costly and will probably be decided by the Supreme Court," the letter stated. However, GMA's claims that state GMO labeling efforts are unconstitutional are baseless, according to legal experts and reported by Organic Consumers Association on January 23.
"If we’re to follow Cheerios and Grape Nuts down the rabbit hole, then states and federal GMO labeling laws will never happen," notes journalist Jill Ettinger in EatDrinkBetter.com. "Instead of mandatory labeling, with defined parameters, we’ll end up with a sugar-coated self-regulated system that’s about as healthy for you as the average breakfast cereal. In the long run, we’re much better off with tangible labeling laws instead of voluntary proclamations," she wrote.
One bright spot is that “now that Original Cheerios has gone non-GMO, it has proven one thing we've known all along and that is that GMO labeling doesn't cost the consumer any more money," said David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner's and a longtime GMO labeling advocate. Bronner noted at a recent GMO labeling meeting in Portland, OR, that prices have not gone up for non-GMO Cheerios or Grape Nuts, despite repeated claims by GMO labeling opponents that mandatory labeling requirements would increase food prices for consumers.
This post originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of Presence News, a leading industry newsletter published by Presence Marketing / Dynamic Presence, the nation's largest independent natural and organic products brokerage.
Steven Hoffman is Managing Director of Compass Natural LLC, a full-service marketing, branding, public relations and business development agency serving natural, organic and sustainable products businesses. As a GMO labeling proponent, he served on the finance committees of California’s Prop 37 and Washington State’s I-522 voter campaigns to label GMO foods. Hoffman is former Editorial Director of New Hope Natural Media and former Program Director of Natural Products Expo. A co-founder of the annual LOHAS Conference for the $300-billion “Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability” market, and former Director of The Organic Center, Hoffman also served as Rocky Mountain Sales Manager and National Marketing Director for Arrowhead Mills, now a leading organic division of the Hain-Celestial Group. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org, tel 303.807.1042.