Putting the Cheerios announcement in perspective

Lots of tweets and shouts in the last few days heralding General Mills’ announcement that Cheerios–at least the “original” Cheerios–would be manufactured without GM ingredients. I was finding it hard to be enthusiastic about this development, and Mark Bittman helped me put my finger on why:

Taking the G.M.O.’s out of Cheerios is only a little bit harder than taking them out of oatmeal: there are no G.M.O. oats, and Cheerios are, essentially, oats. (Well, hyper-processed oats.) They also contain small amounts of cornstarch and sugar, so its parent company, General Mills, has done little more than source non-G.M.O. cornstarch and cane rather than beet sugar to use in production. (There are G.M.O. beets, and almost all corn and soybeans grown in the United States use G.M.O. seeds, whose products find their way into most processed foods.) This is what they’ve done for years in most of Europe, where products with G.M.O.’s are almost universally labeled as such.

Some will argue that this step, though a small one in terms of ingredients, is meaningful as a sign that consumers’ voices are being heard. I think that’s true to the extent that manufacturers do realize that consumers are increasingly aware that perhaps this whole “genetically modified” thing is something they should be paying attention to. (Whether they’re paying attention to the right things is another matter.) But given how fast and loose many food manufacturers play with their labeling and marketing messages, the Cheerios announcement may not be the harbinger of great progress. Bittman addresses this, too:

If opportunistic marketers like those at General Mills can cash in by making insignificant changes in their products that lead to significant marketing benefits, what happens to people who’ve actually put work into making their products significantly cleaner — that is, organic? Once you have an “organic” label, you are forbidden to put “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients” on your package — that’s theoretically understood, as are more important benefits, like antibiotic- and pesticide-free. But thanks to the way-too-loud G.M.O. screaming match, my guess is that it’s easier to market food using a meaningless “G.M.O.-free” label than an organic label.