'GMO-free' Cheerios: Pretty much just Cheerios

January 3, 2014: 2:00 PM ET

General Mills' move to market "GMO-free" Cheerios is aimed at assuaging the fears of consumers over genetically modified crops. But it won't be easily replicated across the industry.

140103135057-cheerios-in-milk-620xaFORTUNE -- General Mills (GIS) will soon start selling Cheerios with labels boasting that they are "GMO-free." Well, mostly free. The Wall Street Journal reports that the company says Cheerios might still "contain trace amounts due to contamination in shipping or manufacturing." So the label claim, like so many label claims, will be essentially meaningless.

But it will help General Mills market Cheerios to consumers who have been led to believe that GMOs pose a health risk. The scientific consensus is that they do not. The situation is nicely summed up by General Mills spokesman Mike Siemienas, who told the Journal there is "broad consensus that food containing GMOs is safe, but we decided to move forward with this in response to consumer demand." Consumer demand, that is, based on the dubious claims of industry critics.

Some crops are engineered to, for example, resist pests. Food activists and some consumer groups have been warning of the supposed dangers of GMOs, and demanding that food companies label all products that are made with GMO crops. The industry has been resistant.

MORE: 5 lessons from survivors of the dotcom crash

General Mills' move might open the door for similar tactics across the food business. After critics began warning of the supposed dangers of high fructose corn syrup, some companies such as Kraft (KRFT) and PepsiCo (PEP) switched to sugar in some products, boasting that their products were made with "real sugar," despite the fact that there's no indication that HFCS is any worse than sugar, healthwise.

It wouldn't be that easy with GMOs, however. In many cases, the only crops available to produce a given product are GMO crops. That's why only original Cheerios will carry the GMO-free claim, while variants such as Honey Nut Cheerios will not. GMO oats are not available, so General Mills only had to find new sources for the other ingredients -- cornstarch and sugar. That was nevertheless likely a costly move, but General Mills apparently believes that the "GMO-free" claim will make up the difference through increased sales. But the more ingredients a product contains, the harder it would be to produce it without using GMOs. Unfortunately for the food industry, Cheerios is about as simple as a processed-food product can be.

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