Is it possible to have your non-GMO cake and eat it?
General Mills apparently thinks so, after eradicating GMOs from its original Cheerios recipe (by switching to non-GMO cornstarch and using cane rather than beet sugar), but retaining GMOs in other varieties of Cheerios and most other brands.
So is this a savvy move that will appease the anti-GMO lobby without conceding any real ground, or a token gesture that could ultimately backfire?
According to Tom Forsythe , vice president of global communications at General Mills, which continues to oppose mandatory GMO labeling, the move was about putting a toe in the water, not bowing to pressure from anti-GMO activists: “It’s simple. We did it [reformulated original Cheerios] because we think consumers may embrace it... 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, General Mills’ position on GMOs hasn’t changed."
Predictably, reactions have been mixed, with some observers welcoming the move as a genuine attempt to address consumer concerns (while simultaneously insisting they are unfounded); and others claiming it is misguided, confusing, and just reinforces suspicions that there must be something wrong with GMOs.
Professor: It’s cowardly, it lacks strategic vision, and it will come back to bite them
As is often the case when firms say one thing and do another (‘lean finely textured beef/HFCS/artificial ingredient X... are perfectly safe but we’re dropping them anyway’), the message to consumers is confused, Dr Bruce Chassy, professor emeritus of food science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told FoodNavigator-USA.
“It’s cowardly, it lacks strategic vision, and it will come back to bite them. General Mills should have stood its ground and continued to support the fight against misinformation.”
Politically significant though the move may be, meanwhile, the irony is that from a practical perspective, the more expensive non-GMO ingredients Gen Mills is now using in original Cheerios are nutritionally and chemically indistinguishable from the genetically engineered ingredients they have replaced - as both are so highly refined that they contain no DNA or protein, he pointed out.
Steve Hoffman: A small changing of the tide may be a harbinger of other companies making non-GMO announcements
But what does the anti-GMO lobby make of it all?
Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, welcomed Gen Mills’ move as “progress”, but said consumers hearing the headlines and not reading the small print might assume that all Cheerios are now GMO-free, and stressed that this recipe change should not distract attention from the broader goal of mandatory GMO labeling, which General Mills is still against.
Steve Hoffman, a natural products industry consultant and member of the ‘Yes on 522’ finance committee, told FoodNavigator-USA that “there are many in the GMO truth in labeling movement that hail the Cheerios announcement as a major victory”, although he acknowledged that some also suspected it might be a cynical marketing ploy.
But “a small changing of the tide may be a harbinger of other companies making non-GMO announcements”, he predicted: “In my mind, General Mills is still following [rather than leading on this issue]. But with this move, they may be ahead of lots of other big brands who haven't seen the writing on the wall yet.”
Center for Food Safety: They are trying to have it both ways
The Center for Food Safety, which is well-known for its opposition to genetically engineered foods, was less impressed, however.
Director of government affairs Colin O’Neil told us: “Cheerios is an iconic, family oriented brand that they don’t want marred. Yet at the same time, General Mills continues to pump millions of dollars into anti-consumer, anti-labeling campaigns in states such as Washington and California. They are trying to have it both ways – appease consumers with small tokens on one hand, but thwart widespread knowledge about GMO ingredients.”
“We’d like to see General Mills stop funding campaigns against mandatory GMO labeling all together and support the consumer's right to know."
Jeff Hilton: They take a pretty lame position … keeping one foot in and the other one out
Branding and marketing experts, meanwhile, said General Mills’ move highlighted what a minefield the GMO issue is for large manufacturers.
Jeff Hilton, partner and co-founder at branding/marketing agency Brandhive, noted that the reformulation of original Cheerios was a classic case of attempting to have your cake and eat it. “It seems pretty clear to me that they are testing the water with their core brand to see what the consumer temperature is before they commit to altering the formulas of the remaining 11 SKUs.
“By doing so, however, they take a pretty lame position regarding GMO regulation, keeping one foot in and the other one out. My personal opinion is that most mainstream food manufacturers are convinced for now that this GMO fuss will blow over at some point, since there is no legitimate and conclusive evidence that GMOs are significantly harmful to consumers.
“But you can bet they have also already assembled a plan to re-formulate everything if No GMOs becomes a front and center issue with consumers and begins to hit them in the wallet where it really hurts.”
Tom Vierhile: This does make a statement, albeit a muddled one…
Datamonitor innovation insights director Tom Vierhile, meanwhile, suggested that the action “buys the company (and industry, perhaps) some time to sort things out”.
He added: “And in General Mills’ favor, the flagship product of its top selling cereal brand is being changed, so this does make a statement, albeit a muddled one.
“Longer term, this is a chicken and egg issue. Something is going to have to give in order to change the dynamic, and the two likely options are greater supplies of non-GMO corn and soybeans or national rules for non-GMO labeling. I would bet more on the latter, but not without something happening at the state level first and that is more likely than not going to be messy.”
Mark Shevitz: It's just another option for consumers
But Mark D. Shevitz, director of brand strategy and planning at branding and marketing agency CBD Marketing said General Mills was simply offering consumers a new option and seeing what they made of it.
He added: "I think this is all about giving consumers an option and responding to constant changes in eating trends/awareness. I see offering a non-GMO option to consumers as no different than providing gluten-free or no added sugar or other dietary or nutritional options. There’s clearly a debate and concern about GMOs in food, and it has an influence on what some people are or are not willing to purchase.
"I wouldn’t be surprised to see other CPG companies take the same path."
Dr Wayne Parrot: General Mills is an example of a company wanting to have it both ways, and failing at both
Dr Wayne Parrott, professor of crop science at the University of Georgia, was less charitable, however: “I cannot say I am surprised, as General Mills has been undermining the science and confusing consumers for quite some time.
“General Mills is an example of a company wanting to have it both ways, and failing at both. It is a terrible decision that pleases neither their supporters nor their detractors.
“Letting the public at large decide what is safe and what is not- as opposed to learned authorities- is a bad precedent."