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GMO-free Cheerios: Did General Mills buckle to consumer pressure? Will the move backfire?

10-Jan-2014 - By Kacey Culliney & Elaine Watson
GMO-free Cheerios: Did General Mills buckle to consumer pressure? Will the move backfire?
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General Mills’ move to go GMO-free on its flagship Cheerios brand has caused quite a stir. But what motivated this reformulation? And how will it play out?

FoodNavigator-USA editor Elaine Watson and BakeryandSnacks’ Kacey Culliney chew over some of their thoughts and what they’ve heard elsewhere.

General Mills announced its move to make GMO-free Cheerios at the very beginning of this year. The reformulation hasn’t taken much work as the dominant ingredient, whole grain oats, are already GMO-free. But the cereal major has now replaced its beet sugar with cane sugar and switched to non-GMO corn starch.

A surprising move without warning

BakeryandSnacks editor Kacey Culliney: Reformulation move came out of the blue

Kacey Culliney said the move came without any prior hints from a company that has stood strong on the use of genetically modified ingredients (GMO) for a considerable length of time.

“At the moment, I’m not sure myself of the motive behind the move, but what I do know is that it was a surprising one and I don’t think I’m the only one to have been surprised.”

She said that last year when activist group GMO Inside launched an anti-GMO campaign against General Mills and its competitor Kellogg, General Mills had stood strong on its use of GMOs, as did Kellogg.

Balancing business values and consumer engagement

Elaine Watson said that from a business stand-point, it was important for large consumer brands to show they were listening to consumers and engaging in the debate around GMOs and this was certainly one way to prove that.

“I think they’re also dipping their toes in the water and seeing what the reaction is. To me, it does feel a little bit like they’re trying to have their cake and eat it here.”

FoodNavigator-USA editor Elaine Watson: Move could send out mixed messages to consumers

She likened this move to the lean finely textured beef ‘debacle’ – where information from the company about the safety of ingredients got lost.

Did they just buckle under ‘consumer pressure’?

General Mills has steered clear of associating the move with 'consumer pressure' but did acknowledge that they wanted to see how consumers will react.

However, Elaine Watson said the move to remove GMOs from Cheerios could prove a confusing message for consumers. "If GMOs are safe, then why are they dropping them? And if there is a problem, even if it's just one of consumer perception, why are they only changing one recipe?" she said.

Kacey Culliney added: “How this fits into consumer sentiment is probably one of the most interesting parts of it all.”

She said that on the one part GMO Inside had claimed “a pretty big win” but General Mills was stepping away from the idea that the move was a result of consumer pressure.

Elaine Watson said it would be interesting to see how it played out and what the rest of the cereal industry and General Mills’ competitors had to say.

Have you got any thoughts on General Mills’ move to make Cheerios GMO-free? How do you think this will shape up for their business? And what do you believe the motivation to be behind it? Leave your comments below…

Related topics: The GM debate, Manufacturers, Prepared Foods