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Cheerios GMO-Free Decision Mostly About Marketing

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A popular breakfast cereal will soon sport a label on its familiar yellow box declaring it free of genetically modified ingredients, both a win for anti-GMO activists and the mark of a big food company looking to tap into a niche market for its product.

General Mills has announced that it will source the corn starch from non-GMO corn and sugar from sugar cane rather than (potentially GM) sugar beets for its original Cheerios. The first ingredient in the popular cereal is oats and, as a company vice president noted in a blog post explaining the change, there are no GM oats in the marketplace.

“My first reaction was that it probably wasn’t that hard for them to do it,” said Iowa State University food science professor Ruth MacDonald, “and it would be a new market niche for the product.”

While the anti-GMO activist group GMO Insider pushed hard for General Mills to make this change—generating tens of thousands of Facebook posts supporting its efforts – MacDonald says the decision likely had more to do with what those consumers are buying, not what they are posting online.

“Consumer power is at the checkout,” MacDonald said. “It’s where the industry looks to see what’s happening.”

In the past, companies have catered to trends for higher fiber and protein and lower fat and carbohydrates, MacDonald said.

“They’re just trying to get more people to buy their products so they can generate a profit,” she said.

Only the original Cheerios will be GMO-free, the company has said. The other flavors may continue to contain GM ingredients. MacDonald said for a company to single out one product as GMO-free is an interesting decision. General Mills has a company statement supporting the safety of GMOs and yet she said the company likely sees a niche.

“They probably aren’t doing this because they have some reason to be concerned about GMO, but Cheerios is something that parents feed to their children,” MacDonald said.

So General Mills may have looked at its core consumers and determined that the non-GMO label would further satisfy discerning customers. She doesn’t expect Cheerios sales will be hugely impacted. But, she says other food companies may look askance at the change General Mills made.

“I’m sure there are some companies that aren’t very happy with General Mills for doing this because they have really opened the door to say, `oh, well, maybe there is something wrong with GMOs,’” she said.

Still, MacDonald’s prediction is that other food companies will follow suit and make subtle changes so products can be labeled GMO-free.

And although she has reviewed the science and says GMOs do not present any safety issues for humans or animals, MacDonald recognizes that for the anti-GMO activists, the Cheerios news is significant.

“They have won a little victory here, there’s no doubt,” MacDonald said.

It’s one that she says is likely to further confuse consumers who receive mixed messages about GMOs. But she reiterates that General Mills likely was no more motivated by activists groups than it was by the GM ingredients.

“I don’t think that they’re bending to the will of the non-GMO market. I think they’re looking at this as a strategy to make their company look like they’re responsive to the concerns of the mothers out there that don’t want their kids to have GMO products,” MacDonald said. “I don’t think that they’re doing this to appease anybody. It’s a definite market strategy.”

Score one for activism. And one for capitalism.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.
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