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Cheerios Anti-GMO Move: PR Win, Marketing Stunt, or Both?

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Lots of people really don’t like the concept of genetically modified organisms in their food; just check out what happened to Cheerios when they tried to let Facebook fans get creative back in 2012.

The people who hated on General Mills for GMOs a year ago were probably glad to hear the news that the company will no longer include any “genetically engineered ingredients” in its primary product, plain old Cheerios. In the words of The Motley Fool, GM “[said] no to Monsanto” in the interest of corporate reputation and sales.

Seems like a case of social media outrage leading to positive change, right?

Not so fast.

As Quartz reported yesterday, the CEO of Monsanto addressed the issue during a conference call when asked whether the company fears a public uprising over GMOs, saying:

“The interesting thing with Cheerios over that particular brand is they’re made from oats, and there are no biotech oats in existence today. So I think we’ve talked for years about we would support voluntary labeling and that was up to companies to do. I think we saw last week was the first real life example of true voluntary labeling and probably a little bit of marketing as well.”

General Mills VP of global comms basically confirmed this point in a blog post last week:

“Original Cheerios has always been made with whole grain oats, and there are no GMO oats. We do use a small amount of corn starch in cooking, and just one gram of sugar per serving for taste. And now that corn starch comes only from non-GM corn, and our sugar is only non-GM pure cane sugar.

Why change anything at all? It’s simple. We did it because we think consumers may embrace it.”

So while we can applaud General Mills for responding to public pressure, this looks a whole lot like a “We’re not Monsanto” stunt—especially since the ingredients of many products like, say, Honey Nut Cheerios won’t change at all.

The most important takeaway from this story, as we see it, is a confirmation of social media’s power. For more, check out this New York Times article on bloggers and others using social as a “megaphone” to force food companies to change their practices.

And expect more stories like this one to come.

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