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February 13 2014

General Mills Caves to the Food Police

USA Today
Julie Gunlock

General Mills has announced they will no longer use genetically modified (GM) ingredients in popular breakfast cereal Cheerios. Food manufacturers go to great lengths to satisfy their customers. When shoppers request changes, smart businesses comply by changing products or adding to the product line to keep their customers happy.

As the leading purchasers of everything from cars to groceries, women have particular clout. Yet, today, more companies are bending, not to the demands of their loyal female base, but to a very vocal and media-savvy minority of radical activists determined to frighten women — particularly mothers — about GM food.

General Mills' decision comes on the heels of several major food companies trying to satisfy anti-GM activists. In 2013, ice cream giant Ben & Jerry's announced it would remove GM ingredients from its products. Burrito emporium Chipotle soon followed. In 2013, pricey grocery store chain Whole Foods pledged to go GM-free by 2018.

It is understandable that food companies are desperate to find a way to please their critics and reach détente with the powerful anti-GM movement. Yet, it appears these companies have settled on a strategy combining meek contrition (we're sorry we use perfectly safe GM ingredients) and appeasement (we'll get rid of perfectly safe GM ingredients in some…but not all…products). This squishy and schizophrenic policy will accomplish one thing: it will make the problem much worse.

For starters, while General Mills publicly states on its website that the company agrees with the wide consensus among scientists that GM ingredients are safe, the change to Cheerios sends a very different message to consumers: We've made the product safer. Do they mean to suggest Cheerios was previously unsafe?

From a business standpoint, by suggesting Cheerios has been made safer, the company puts its other products — those that still contain GM ingredients — in a bad light. The company might be spinning this as providing consumers more choices, but organic cereals (which cannot contain GM ingredients) have been available for years. Cheerios is hardly breaking ground.

Mothers aren't the only one being sent a message. The very people General Mills hoped to appease will now be inspired to demand even more. The argument is obvious: if General Mills is willing to take GM ingredients out of one product, why not all?

It's happening. Responding to the Cheerios announcement, an Environmental Working Group blogger asked the executives at General Mills: "…why stop there? Why not support GE labeling on all General Mills products?" An Organic Consumers Association blogger chimed in, "Next, General Mills should get GMOs out of all of its products…"

General Mills doesn't want to talk about its other products because doing so would betray the emptiness of their gesture. Omitting GM ingredients from Cheerios wasn't a heavy lift for General Mills. It likely won't result in a noticeable price hike for consumers. One of the main ingredients of Cheerios is wheat, which is not genetically modified. Therefore it is not available to manufacturers for processed food. So in order to make Cheerios GM-free, the company will only be required to make two relatively simple and inexpensive changes: switch to non-GM cornstarch and sugar.

It would be quite different to omit GM ingredients from products with significant amounts of corn, canola and soy. After all, GM ingredients are in 80% of processed foods in the United States. To remove them all would not simply be a gesture of goodwill, it would be very expensive.

Of course, anti-GM activists aren't the only ones who will benefit from General Mills' well-meaning but naïve move. Food activists have a long menu of grievances. From sugar and high-fructose corn syrup to artificial flavors and colors, trans-fats, salt and preservatives, General Mills just provided the food police the blueprint for success.

A better solution for companies is to listen to their actual customers — women who want choices in the marketplace and access to both healthy and affordable food. Food companies would be wise to defend the products Americans love and to stand firm against the nonsense peddled by alarmists.

Julie Gunlock is with the Independent Women's Forum and is the author of From Cupcakes to Chemicals, How the Culture of Alarmism Makes us Afraid of Everything and How to Fight Back

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Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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