Richard Rodriguez/AP Images for Cheerios
Dallas-area cheerleaders jumped, danced, and cheered to celebrate teachers in Dallas on October 5, 2013. The celebration was part of the Cheerios Send Cheer to Teachers program that happened on World Teachers' Day.

No more GMOs in Cheerios. Will a lot more foods go GMO-free now?

General Mills, maker of Cheerios, is stripping that one breakfast cereal of genetically modified organisms, seeing a growing market for foods with no GMOs. 'An avalanche' of companies will follow that lead, one analyst predicts.

Cheerios will no longer contain genetically modified ingredients, a manufacturer decision driven by heightened consumer awareness about the perceived health risks of such products, say food service experts.

General Mills, the Minneapolis-based company that makes the legendary breakfast cereal, announced the change late Thursday, saying it will use cornstarch and sugar that are not genetically modified when producing the cereal. Offshoots of the Cheerios brand, such as Honey Nut Cheerios, are not affected by the change. Nor are any other General Mills cereals.

The move is "of huge importance,” says Ken Albala, a food historian at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. “General Mills is finally realizing that, whichever the way the trend goes, they’re going to follow it." He predicts that "an avalanche" of food companies will follow the General Mills lead.

The US Department of Agriculture defines genetic modification as “the production of heritable improvements in plants or animals for specific uses, via either genetic engineering or other more traditional methods.” Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are banned in food in at least 26 countries, including Switzerland, Australia, China, India, France, Russia, Italy, and Greece. Sixty other countries have restrictions on their use.

Critics say GMO ingredients can reduce the nutritional value of the foods in which they are used, and they argue that they may have harmful consequences for human health and the environment. Between 70 percent and 80 percent of the food consumed in the US contains ingredients that have been genetically modified, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, in Washington. 

In some states, lawmakers or activists have pushed for laws to require that products containing GMOs be labeled as such, but industry groups representing supermarket chains and food producers have lobbied hard to prevent such rules. To date, only Connecticut has approved such a food-labeling law, but it can't doesn't go into effect until all neighboring states have similar laws in place.

The GMO-free food train is already leaving the station in the US. Last year, the Whole Foods grocery chain announced that products sold in its stores would be free of GMOs by 2018, and Kashi pledged that half of its products would be GMO-free by 2015. The Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant chain has made a similar pledge.

General Mills, however, says its Cheerios decision is not a capitulation to activist groups pressing for removal of GMOs from food. It is "not about safety … and it was never about pressure,” Tom Forsythe, the company's vice president of global communications, said in a blog post Thursday.

Genetically modified seeds “have been approved by global food safety agencies and widely used by farmers in global food crops for almost 20 years,” he noted. “Why change anything at all? It’s simple. We did it because we think consumers may embrace it.” 

With this move, General Mills is "testing" the market on a brand that is relatively easy to rid of GMOs, says Harry Balzer, chief food industry analyst for the NPD Group, a global market research firm. After all, Cheerios' main ingredient, oats, cannot be genetically modified. Heightened consumer awareness of GMOs, which has been building during the past decade, is what is driving the decision, he says. Ten years ago, 43 percent of US consumers were aware of genetically modified food; today, 55 percent are, according to an NPD Group study released in December. 

NPD also reports that 20 percent of US consumers are “very” or “extremely” concerned about genetically modified food; in 2002, that concern was shared among just 10 percent of consumers.

The General Mills decision stems from a “movement driven by consumers, rather than driven by companies," Mr. Balzer says. "Marketers will surely follow wherever consumers go.” 

As more food manufacturers and grocery chains push for GMO-free products, the potential exists for higher costs for the consumer, he says.

Moreover, GMO technology requires “fewer pesticides, less water, and keep(s) production costs down,” the Grocery Manufacturers Association says. Thus, it “helps reduce the price of crops used for food, such as corn, soybeans and sugar beats,” by 15 percent to 30 percent.

Eliminating GMO ingredients from the American diet is largely impossible, most experts say, because processed foods are such a dominant part of it. As General Mills and other food suppliers unveil GMO-free versions of popular brands, they will likely create a niche market for those consumers who want a choice. This will be especially true of products ingested by children, such as cereal and baby food.

“The way to sell any food product is to have several different versions. That’s probably where we’re going to be in a few years,” Mr. Albala says. “This is a specialty market.”

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