Organic Consumers Association

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General Mills Is Ridin' for the Brand

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page and our Millions Against Monsanto page.

The hoopla about Cheerios coming out with "non-GMO" ingredients is not surprising to me. From experience with other food companies, I realize that they will do anything to protect the equity in their brand name. Why General Mills publicly made the switch is another example of a savvy protest group hitting the most sensitive part of a company. The cereal giant decided appeasement was the best means to diminish publicity and online attacks, but they didn't do it for any reason except to protect their bottom line.

This story isn't really about genetically modified grain. It is about the shiny thin covering of a company that produces a convenience food that consumers could live without. They can't risk losing its commercial charm. Cereal is processed grain that is fortified with vitamins and combined with preservatives and sweeteners. It is aggressively marketed as fun, healthy and satisfying, but it's purchased because kids like it and the boxed product is more convenient than making it yourself.

Cereal companies make an estimated 40 to 45 percent profit and have 90 percent penetration in most markets. That means literally every American household makes a purchasing decision on cereal. The brilliance of marketing this original fast food has made some of the largest fortunes in the history of America: Kellogg and Post are revered names of the pioneers of the industry, dating back to the 19th century. It is no coincidence that dry cereal became popular at the beginning of the industrial revolution. Cereal manufacturers learned to make nutritious and palatable products that could be eaten dry or with milk or yogurt as an ideal breakfast food for people in a hurry.

The key to all cereal makers' profitability is their brand. "Grape Nuts" was first introduced in 1898. Kellogg bought the rights to "Cornflakes" in 1906 and General Mills started producing "Wheaties" in 1924. "Cheerioats" came along in 1941 and became "Cheerios" in 1945. All of the companies enlisted sports figures or cartoon characters to promote their products. Generations of Americans have consumed these cereals and hold them in high esteem.

Several years ago, I was the moderator of a panel at Arkansas State University that included the director of science and technology from Gerber Foods. The company had just announced that it would stop allowing any genetically modified raw product from being an ingredient in its baby food. I questioned the science behind the decision and was told by the chief scientist with the company that it was necessary "to protect their brand." He was imminently qualified to discuss science, but he yielded to marketing because the company realized that the issue was all about keeping the consumer from choosing a competitor or worse. Making baby food is something that any mother or father can do with a stove, a pan and a strainer. Baby food and cereal industries can't afford to empower consumers to make their own.   

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