General Mills Inc. announced this week that it has stopped using genetically modified (GM) ingredients in the original flavor of the popular breakfast cereal Cheerios. The move comes amid growing public opposition to the use of GM products.
Critics have long expressed concerns about the possible health effects of products derived from GM crops, and accuse some companies who use them of deliberately keeping consumers in the dark by not labeling them as GM.
But a General Mills spokesman told Al Jazeera on Friday that safety fears were not a factor in the company's decision to drop GM ingredients.
"There is a broad consensus among international bodies that genetically modified foods are safe. This was a change we were able to make given the simple formula of Cheerios," the spokesman said by phone.
Separately, General Mills said in blog post: "We did it because we think consumers may embrace it," and not because of any outside pressure or safety fears.
The main ingredient of the original Cheerios recipe is oats – and there are essentially no genetically modified oats, according to General Mills, which says it will only have to switch out the cornstarch and sugar.
Other types of Cheerios such as “Multi Grain” or “Apple Cinnamon” are made with more corn – which is more often genetically modified, making it harder for General Mills to make those flavors GM-free. Thus those products will not be labeled as "Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients," the company told The Associated Press.
Colin O'Neil, a spokesman for the nonprofit Center for Food Safety, told Al Jazeera that the notion that genetically engineered ingredients are already proven to be completely safe is misleading. "Companies are not required by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) to provide premarket safety assessments," he said. "Nor are there enough studies to confirm the safety of GM ingredients, because companies who own proprietary patents for genetically modified ingredients stifle independent research."
"The company approaches the FDA and presents limited data,” O’Neil added. “Additionally, the FDA has no authority to reject these products."
In the absence of mandatory labeling programs, O'Neil said it is difficult to know which foods contain genetically modified ingredients. "It's like the wild wild west," he said.
For its part, General Mills says it opposes state-based labeling regulations but supports "nationally standardized labeling of non-GMO products in the U.S."
O'Neil said the United States has a relatively lax regulatory system for genetically engineered crops. "A number of countries have banned the cultivation of genetically engineered crops, while an even larger amount severely restrict the cultivation or import of genetically engineered foods and crops into the country," he said. "We've had a voluntary labeling standard in place (in the U.S.) since 2001, and in that time, zero companies have voluntarily labeled the genetically engineered components in their food."
A statement on the General Mills website acknowledged that genetically modified ingredients are not used in products sold to the European market, but emphasized how common GM foods are in the U.S. "Almost half of the cropland in the U.S. is used to grow genetically modified crops, and 70 to 80 percent of the foods in the average grocery store likely contain GMOs (genetically modified organisms)," it said.
The General Mills spokesman told Al Jazeera that the company has been working on eliminating GM ingredients from Cheerios for nearly a year, and after significant investment in the process.
Meanwhile, concerns about GM ingredients continue to gain traction in the U.S. – but slowly, and in fits and starts.
A Washington state ballot measure last November that called for the required labeling of foods containing GM crops failed to garner wide approval.
O'Neil told Al Jazeera that most processed foods in the U.S. contain GM ingredients, and that "in the absence of labeling, the consumer will never know."