Activists are taking aim at General Mills for providing GMO-free Cheerios in Europe and not North America.
In a news advisory this month, the consumer advocacy group Green America accused General Mills, maker of Cheerios and major donor to Washington State's anti GMO-labelling campaign, of “perpetuating consumer deception” by concealing its use of GMOs in the U.S. and Canada.
In the U.S., argues Elizabeth O’Connell, Green America’s Campaigns Director, General Mills markets Cheerios as a natural product, but “many ingredients, including modified corn starch, sugar, canola, and vitamin E, usually derived from soy, are at high risk of being genetically modified.” Indeed, about 90 percent of corn, 95 percent of sugar beets [refined into sugar] and 93 percent of soy are genetically engineered in the U.S.
America has no legal definition for the term “natural.” The word has been challenged in numerous lawsuits filed against numerous companies in states with strong consumer protection laws. The courts have kicked the issue back to the FDA. No resolution is in sight.
The timing of the Green America report coincides with scrutiny of the Grocery Manufacturing Association (GMA) by Washington state attorney Bob Ferguson, who sued the industry trade group for illegally concealing the identity of donors to the No on Initiative 522 campaign, and for failing to register as a political committee. The vice chair of the GMA is Kenneth Powell, CEO of General Mills. The GMA recently revealed it received $568,819 in hidden donations from General Mills and more than $1 million each from Coca-Cola, Nestle USA and Pepsico.
General Mills declined to comment on the lawsuit or on any issues raised by Crosscut for this story.
“Cheerios are often the first solid food fed to infants in the U.S., yet parents are in the dark about the GMO ingredients,” says O’Connell. “When it comes to our right to know, General Mills again fails to be transparent. In a bid to keep American consumers in the dark, the company is covertly funding the nation’s most recent GMO labeling initiative under the guise of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.”
Proponents of GMO labeling in Washington State have steered clear of the health risk question surrounding GMOs. This month, an international group of more than 85 researchers and physicians released a statement saying that the "claimed consensus on GMO safety does not exist.”
Dr. Robin Berhoft, spokesperson for the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, allows that GMOs have not been adequately tested on animals or humans, but finds the results of a recent French study using rats “extremely worrisome.” Berhoft suggests that the U.S. follow Europe’s lead and exercise caution. “You don’t introduce food, drugs, or pesticides into the human environment until they’re proven safe,” he says.
European consumers began to reject GMOs back in 1999, after a British researcher questioned their safety. Dr. Arpad Pusztai received a $3 million grant from the UK government to test the safety of genetically-modified foods. He found potentially precancerous growth cells, liver and testicle damage, smaller brain size and damaged immune systems in rats that were fed a diet that included genetically-modified potatoes.
When Pusztai’s findings became public, they triggered an avalanche of media stories — more than 700 articles in the UK alone. “Within ten weeks, Unilever, then Nestle’s, then everyone else committed to stop using GMO ingredients,” says Jeffrey Smith, author of Seeds of Deception, and founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, an organization which has been trying to educate consumers about GMOs. (The first chapter of the book is devoted to Pusztai’s work.)
GMO labeling laws, first introduced in Europe 1997, were strengthened in 2004. But according to Smith, “GMO’s were kicked out of Europe because of market share.” Once global food companies like General Mills realized consumers were spooked, they stopped selling GMO products.
So far, U.S. consumers haven't demanded that kind of change in their food. Labeling advocates say that's because national policies around GMOs have been heavily influenced by those already invested in the GMO business. They argue that the commercial food industry funds most GMO safety studies, which makes their results suspect, and that the FDA, the federal watchdog agency, is in thrall to Monsanto. The FDA's stance on GMOs was established under Michael Taylor, a former vice president of Monsanto. (Taylor is now the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner.) Over the past decade, at least seven high-ranking FDA employees have worked with Monsanto.
In the end, science and regulation may not matter as much as market forces. Green America and its partners hope that GMO labeling might unleash them. “Going down the line, we’ll have more ways that consumers can raise their voices,” says Campaigns Director O’Connell.
She may be right. Whole Foods Market has pledged to label all GMO foods in its stores by 2018. “If there’s enough consumer demand and interest," says O'Connell, "that’s what will make it happen.”