General Mills Inc. has made strong commitments this year to natural and organic foods. It took genetically modified ingredients out of its signature cereal brand Cheerios and then doubled down on its organic lineup by striking an $820-million deal for Annie's, a stalwart of the organic and natural foods industry.
But when the industrial food behemoth's shareholders were presented with a proposal to dump all genetically modified ingredients from the company's vast lineup of brands, they responded with a resounding "No."
The Minneapolis-based company said preliminary vote totals from Tuesday's annual shareholder meeting showed that 97.8% of participants rejected the proposal.
The debate underscores the tricky road ahead for one of the world's largest food companies, owner of brands such as Pillsbury and Haagen-Dazs. Expanding into organic and natural foods gives the company a rarity: markets that are growing.
Other attempts aren't so clear-cut. The decision to remove bioengineered ingredients from its plain Cheerios line was applauded by some food policy advocates, but General Mills said it hasn't translated into higher sales.
The rejection of the proposal also shows shareholders aren't convinced it's unsafe to consume genetically modified organisms, better known as GMOs, which are created in labs by altering plant genes. This is often done to resist disease and pests. Though there is no definitive science showing such plants are harmful to human health, it has become one of the most contentious issues in modern food policy. Critics say the effect of widespread genetically modified crops may not be felt for years.
"We've studied all the research that's been done around the world, we are very aware of the numerous regulators globally who have studied GMOs and who have said they are safe," said General Mills Chief Executive Ken Powell, according to the Pioneer Press. "And of course we know and believe GMOs are very safe."
Powell added: "We also know we have different consumers who prefer to buy organic products, or for their reasons prefer to buy products that do not contain GMOs."
The push to remove all bioengineered ingredients at the company originated from a shareholder with deep roots at General Mills – Harriett Crosby, the great-granddaughter of the company's co-founder.
She argued that GMOs harmed the company's brand and reputation and posed a risk to public health.
She was countered by the National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C., conservative think tank, that urged General Mills shareholders to reject Crosby's proposal.
"By declaring publicly that General Mills will keep [genetically modified] ingredients in its remaining Cheerios line, this signals to me that the company realizes that removing [genetically modified] ingredients from original Cheerios was perhaps a mistake," said Justin Danhof, general counsel for the National Center for Public Policy Research, who spoke at the shareholder meeting.
"Powell also pointed out that consumers who wish to avoid GMOs have the choice to buy organic -- and consumer choice is what will drive company decisions, not irrational food police."