CHICAGO, Ill. — While the U.S. Department of Agriculture is busy devising federal regulations for labelling genetically modified food, some companies are getting out ahead of the game.
General Mills has been labelling its products for more than a year and now has a label on every product it sells in the United States.
“It was a massive step for our company because we were very concerned about how it would be received,” Catherine Gunsbury, director of sustainability and transparency at General Mills, told delegates attending the 2017 DTN Ag Summit.
“And I will say, it has been received without event, more or less.”
GM labelling is part of a broader company commitment to become more transparent.
The food industry behemoth felt it had to move in that direction because small food company competitors with shorter supply chains were not only telling consumers what was in their food but also where it came from.
“Consumers see that information and they say, ‘well, General Mills, why can’t you, the $15.6 billion global food company, tell me where my oats are coming from in my Cheerios box?’ ” said Gunsbury.
So the company is doing just that. This summer it launched a project with two of its biggest brands, Cheerios and Nature Valley, along with four Canadian oat growers.
“We photographed and took video of the entire seeding-to-harvest process,” she said.
“We’re just trying to pull the curtain back and share more about who is behind the food.”
Gunsbury said food companies have done a poor job of telling those stories in the past. She said the farm families were willing participants.
“They all had a very strong interest in sharing their story and helping more people understand what it is that they are doing on their farm.”
She said farmers feel misunderstood by the general public and want to dispel some of the myths surrounding agriculture.
They are still trying to find the best way to tell their story because each form of social media is different, she added, so they need to experiment and find the best fit.
“It really is a first step for us,” said Gunsbury.
She said it is such a different world from how companies used to relate to their customers. In the past, General Mills would buy ads on television, radio, print or billboards.
“It is no longer us promoting brands and sending the message that we want. It is a two-way dialogue,” said Gunsbury.
That dialogue is not always pleasant, but the company is making the effort to engage and share more, which is a big transition.
Gunsbury said in the past General Mills wouldn’t share something with consumers until everything was perfect. However, with social media it is all about progress rather than perfection.
So these days the company is doing things such as sharing with consumers progress on its climate change, sourcing and water conservation commitments even if it is behind on some of those commitments.
That’s a big change from what was done in the past.
“We would have had a lot more hand-wringing about reporting that we were not meeting those numbers,” said Gunsbury.