Cheerio, GMOs!

2013 was a mixed year for advocates of labeling GMO ingredients in our food. On the plus side, the movement gained visibility and succeeded in bringing the GMO debate to the mainstream. Even more important were the GMO-labeling laws passed in Connecticut, Vermont, and Maine. Those victories, however, were a mixed bag as well. Those bills require that a total of five contiguous states with combined populations of at least 20 million pass similar bills before the already passed bills can be implemented. This means that voters in at least two other states, including Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, or Rhode Island, will need to pass their own labeling regulations.  On the minus side, advocates suffered a major setback when campaigns funded by big money and big Ag helped defeat hard-fought state labeling initiatives in California and Washington State.

Even this early in the New Year, however, things are looking somewhat brighter. Food conglomerate General Mills has given a boost to those concerned with the GMO controversy by announcing that the original Cheerios is now GMO free.  The boxes of cereal will prominently feature labeling touting the change. Diehard Cheerios fans won’t notice the difference. The recipe for the seventy-three-year-old cereal is exactly the same. The main ingredient remains oats, which have never been grown from GM seed. What will change is that the cornstarch and sugar used to sweeten the oats will be GMO free.

It’s clear from General Mills’ rollout of the new, non-GMO Cheerios that the company hopes to reignite interest and boost sales of the iconic cereal. The change comes at a time when cereal sales in general are down 2.5 percent from the previous year. Even though the company denies the claims of labeling advocates that pressure from consumer/activist groups, such as Green America’s GMO Inside that specifically targeted General Mills, motivated the change, a spokesperson for the company acknowledged that the company’s hope is that “consumers will embrace” the decision. The change in the sourcing of ingredients could hardly be called a revolutionary move for the company since Europeans have been enjoying non-GMO original Cheerios for years.

The switch to non-GMO in just one product in the family of General Mills’ cereal products has been called an “empty gesture” by some food journalists, especially since other Cheerios products will continue to contain GMO corn and soy products. Adding to this perception is the fact that General Mills stands behind its belief that GMOs pose no human health risks. The empty-gesture meme might be somewhat extreme. Small or limited gesture might be a better way to describe it.  After all, the more foodstuffs on the shelves that are GMO free and labeled as such, particularly by mainstream corporations like General Mills, the more consumers may come to expect and demand by way of their spending habits more accountability from other food producers.

This year and coming years promise more positive developments in labeling of GMOs and stocking non-GMO products by some of the country’s largest grocery chains. By their own estimate, Whole Foods already sells over 4,800 non-GMO Project–verified products from over 250 brands. In 2013 Whole Foods became the first national grocery chain to announce a deadline to require GMO labeling in all of its American and Canadian stores. Acknowledging the difficulties to complete the transition by 2018, Whole Foods issued the following statement:

Since GMOs are so prevalent in the major food crops in our country—they’re a majority of U.S. corn, soy, canola, cottonseed and sugar beets crops—this process will be challenging.  But we are working hard and have committed to having labeling for all products by 2018. Many will be labeled ahead of this timeline.

Target and Trader Joe’s have jumped in as well. Each company’s in-house brands are expanding production and marketing of non-GMO products. According to official statements from Trader Joe’s, a process begun in 2001 has resulted in all in-store brand products being sourced from non-genetically modified ingredients. Trader Joe’s devotees should note, however, that one-fifth of the products on the shelves at Trader Joe’s are produced by other companies and are still not labeled for GMOs.

Even with these positive developments, the GMO-labeling controversy is not going to be settled easily. The majority of American corporate food purveyors are fighting fiercely to prevent laws at the state and federal levels that would require labeling. In Washington State, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) spent $22 million to defeat the ballot initiative that failed in 2013. Many of the largest food corporations are now pouring money into a well-funded lobbying effort to encourage the federal government to pass an across-the-board ban on mandatory labeling laws at the state level. Interestingly, the corporations and their consumer base could not be further apart on this issue. In survey after survey 90% of Americans favor GMO labeling.