By David Pierson
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES -- No more GMOs in your Cheerios.
General Mills Inc. said it is no longer using genetically engineered ingredients to make its signature cereal.
The switch comes after a nearly yearlong campaign by a consumer activist group to pressure General Mills to drop genetically modified organisms, known as GMOs, from the popular breakfast staple.
The food giant said that it has stopped sourcing bioengineered corn starch and sugar cane for its original Cheerios. Whole grain oats, the chief ingredient in the cereal, are not affected by the change because they are not available in genetically modified varieties, the Minneapolis firm said.
The company maintains that government-approved genetically engineered foods are safe to eat. And it denied that outside pressure motivated the change. The only explanation given by company officials was that they believed the new formulation would be popular.
"We believe consumers will embrace it," General Mills spokesman Mike Siemienas said.
GMO Inside, an anti-GMO campaign, was quick to claim victory. Organized by members of Green America, a Washington-based nonprofit advocating environmental sustainability, GMO Inside encouraged thousands of people on Facebook to urge General Mills to make Cheerios free of genetically modified organisms.
"We decided General Mills and Cheerios were a good place to focus our energy because a huge company like that could have a major impact," said Elizabeth O'Connell, director of the campaign.
The effort came on the heels of the failed 2012 ballot initiative in California known as Proposition 37 that called for labeling of many genetically engineered foods. Supporters of GMO labeling were stung again by a similar loss in Washington state in November known as I-522.
But O'Connell said consumers are doing what governments have failed to do by threatening to take their grocery dollars elsewhere.
"This shows consumers that their voice does make a difference," she said. "Collective action makes a difference. The ballot actions added awareness and created frustration. Having a win is a great way to show we do have power against these huge corporations."
Genetically modified food is one of the most divisive issues in America's culture wars. Farmers have always bred crops for special traits such as drought tolerance. But genetic engineering takes place in a lab where plant genes are altered.
Proponents laud the innovation as a way to boost yields, build disease resistance and feed hungry nations. Today, 93% of all soybeans and 90% of all corn grown in the U.S. are genetically modified varietals, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Up to 80% of processed foods in America contain genetically engineered ingredients, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Assn.
There is no definitive science showing such foods are harmful to human health when consumed. But critics say that more time and testing are required to ensure safety, and that the process is unnatural and makes farmers beholden to a handful of seed manufacturers.
A June ABC News poll found that 93% of Americans favored GMO labeling laws and more than half believed GMOs to be unsafe.
There are no national labeling laws in the U.S. But 64 countries, including all those in the European Union, Japan and Australia, require food manufacturers to indicate to consumers if their products contain GMOs.
General Mills represents the largest brand to remove genetically engineered ingredients, but others too have made similar moves to meet consumer demands.
Ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's said last year that it would strike the controversial ingredients from its products. Restaurant chain Chipotle said it would phase out GMOs this year. Whole Foods has pledged to label all products in its stores with genetically engineered ingredients by 2018. Last month the grocer said it would stop selling the popular Chobani Greek brand yogurt because it contained GMOs.
General Mills' decision to drop GMOs from Cheerios is an attempt to burnish its reputation, according to Colin O'Neil, director of government affairs for the Washington-headquartered Center for Food Safety. The company spent nearly $2 million defeating the labeling initiatives in California and Washington, an effort that angered many consumers.
"I think grass-roots pressure to change some ingredients is one of the pressure points," O'Neil said. "The real pressure is that the industry has to spend millions on every state to defeat labeling. And we'll get to the point sooner rather than later when these major companies recognize their brand reputation is on the line the more they funnel money into these anti-consumer campaigns."
Oregon and Colorado could be the next to put GMO labeling initiatives on the general election ballots this year.
General Mills opposes state-by-state labeling laws because it would be too costly but supports a national initiative.
The company said it was relatively easy to exclude genetically engineered ingredients from its original Cheerios because the recipe calls for only a small amount of corn starch and sugar.
The cereal maker said it could not do the same for its other products such as Lucky Charms and Cinnamon Toast Crunch because genetically engineered foods were so pervasive in the food system.
"For our other cereals, the widespread use of GM seed in crops such as corn, soy, or beet sugar would make reliably moving to non-GM ingredients difficult, if not impossible," the company said on its website.
Siemienas, the General Mills spokesman, declined to say whether the company was considering dropping bioengineered ingredients from its other foods.
The Cheerios victory would be short-lived if General Mills didn't expand its list of non-GMO products, said O'Connell of Green America.
"If time passes and General Mills hasn't increased its commitment, then perhaps this was just for PR," she said. "We're hoping this is just the first step."