What a Box of Honey Nut Cheerios Says About Today’s Politics

The cereal’s new look shows how and why one small state could change the rules nationwide.
August 2016
(Donald F. Kettl)
By Donald F. Kettl  |  Columnist
The Sid Richardson Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin

Honey Nut Cheerios -- America’s bestselling cereal -- won’t be the same anymore. Thanks to an epic battle in Vermont, every box of the friendly oats from General Mills contains a new label confirming the presence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Outside Vermont, General Mills doesn’t have to include the GMO label. But Jeff Harmening, the company’s chief operating officer for U.S. retail, told a reporter that “having one system for Vermont and one for everywhere else is untenable.” So, as Vermont goes, so goes the nation.

In fact, so went Congress, at least in a limited way. In mid-July, both the House and Senate addressed the subject by passing legislation that would require some form of GMO identification on products sold in stores. But the new federal law will be much weaker than the one in Vermont, so it’s likely Vermont’s will be the one that many companies choose to follow.

That law, which went into effect on July 1, generated one of the biggest regulatory battles in recent memory. Supporters of the law said they simply wanted to give consumers enough information to make informed choices in the grocery store. Other supporters said they worried about the health effects of eating GMOs and thought that the labels would allow consumers to buy different products -- or force manufacturers to use GMO-free ingredients. In Europe, Cheerios don’t contain GMOs.

But getting GMOs out of the American food chain would be very tough. More than 90 percent of the corn, soybean, sugar beets and canola raised in this country comes from crops genetically modified to produce sturdier grains that are more resistant to insects and drought. What’s more, most government regulators have concluded that GMOs are safe, including the World Health Organization, the European Food Safety Agency, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The public, however, isn’t so sure. In a 2015 survey, just 37 percent thought that food with GMOs was safe to eat.

For producers, that has raised two options. One is shifting to more natural components, which is expensive. Ben & Jerry’s, the quintessential Vermont institution in many people’s minds, spent three years taking GMOs out of their caramel and cookie dough ice cream flavors -- forcing prices to rise 11 percent. But removing GMOs caused the disappearance of a few popular flavors. Heath Bar Crunch had to go because the candy bar, manufactured by Hershey, contains GMOs. The other option, a push for substitutes that often don’t undergo the same level of safety testing, hasn’t proved very appealing.

The great GMO debate isn’t just affecting cereal and ice cream. Campbell’s Soups announced that, because of the Vermont law, it too would include GMO labels on all of its cans. Through a quirk in the nation’s patchwork of laws, Campbell’s SpaghettiOs need GMO disclosure, but not SpaghettiOs with meatballs. A food product in which meat makes up more than 2 percent of the weight is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose rules don’t require GMO labeling and supersede those of the states. Campbell’s didn’t want to have SpaghettiO varieties sitting on the shelves next to each other with different labels. It pulled out of the battle against state-by-state regulation and called for mandatory national labeling standards from the federal government.

General Mills, Campbell’s Soups and Mars Inc. candy stopped fighting and accepted the Vermont standards as well. But others in the food industry didn’t give up. They used the new Vermont law to put enormous pressure on Congress. Two weeks after the Vermont policy took effect, Congress passed its own law to preempt it. The federal legislation gave manufacturers three options: the Vermont plan, with text describing GMO content; a QR code that consumers could scan with their smartphones to learn what was inside; or a symbol to be designed later.

In the end, Congress pushed aside Vermont’s simpler and more immediate policy. But one small state -- the nation’s second-least populous -- effectively forced a change in national standards.

It’s not new, of course, for a state innovation to transform the nation. The catalytic converter, which dramatically reduced automobile engine emissions, got its start in a California law. That state’s market was too big for car manufacturers to ignore, so it set the national standard.

Vermont is no California, but Capitol Hill gridlock gave it California-like leverage. Vermont transformed GMO labeling despite its small size because, in an increasingly interconnected food chain, the lowest -- or highest -- common denominator rules. Given the frequent gridlock in Washington, policy initiative flows to the states -- even little ones. And the more these initiatives lay bare the peculiarities of the nation’s regulatory system, the more feasible it is for any state to preempt federal rules. Just consider SpaghettiOs with meatballs.

So your next bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios -- or even a morning with Cap’n Crunch -- will be more than just a way to start your day. It will be a sign of how Washington’s immobility is offering a new kind of leverage to states that want to shape national policy.