John Wood, owner of Portsmouth, Rhode Island health food store Green Grocer, no longer felt comfortable selling Kashi cereals after reading the report Cereal Crimes from non-profit family farm advocacy group Cornucopia Institute (CI), which investigated whether cereals labeled “organic” or “natural” contained genetically-modified (GMO) ingredients and/or the same presence of pesticide residues found on cheaper, conventional cereals. Shockingly, CI’s report found that many “natural” cereal brands, like Kashi, owned by Kellogg and a national best-seller in its market, contain surprisingly high levels of GMOs and carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting pesticide residues, despite being marketed and priced as a premium, healthier product. The report illuminated what many consumers may not realize – that there is in fact no U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation behind the use of the label “natural” on a cereal box.
“The FDA has chosen not to regulate the term ‘natural,'” says David DeSouza, Kashi general manager. Kashi defines natural as “food that’s minimally processed, made with no artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or sweeteners.”
DeSouza says consumers who want clear guidance about genetically modified ingredients can look to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic regulations, which prohibit GMOs in products labeled “organic.”
Wood tacked an explanatory note to his cereal aisle shelf detailing why Kashi products are no longer being carried at Green Grocer. Images of this posted note unexpectedly went viral on the web last week, provoking an angry Kashi customer backlash. Calls stormed in to the company’s customer service line and hundreds of comments were posted on their Facebook page, many of which expressed outrage at being misled.
“Had I known I was buying a product that was like all the others in the ‘normal’ cereal aisle….I would have never purchased it and I certainly would not have paid the high prices!!!!! It disgusts me,” wrote one customer. “Yours is the only brand cereal I have bought for years. Not anymore! You are despicable. Everything you supposedly stand for is a lie,” another angry customer added.
Kashi immediately went on the defense. For a period of time on Wednesday, April 25, Kashi indicated in a recorded message that they were “temporarily” not accepting calls. A video posted on their Facebook page that same afternoon stated that “while it’s likely that some of our foods contain GMOs,” Kashi makes a “significant contribution to supporting organic agriculture.” The company went on to debunk CI’s information as “scientifically inaccurate and misleading because it was not based on actual testing of Kashi products.”
In response, Will Fantle, CI’s Research Director, said, “This characterization of our work by Kashi is blatantly false. We purchased a readily available box of Kashi’s GoLean® cereal from a Whole Foods store. We then sent a sample to an accredited national lab for testing, finding that the soy in the natural cereal was 100% GMO.”
Kashi’s Facebook video claims the “main reason” for their cereal’s GMO ingredients is that 80% of the soybeans grown in North America are GMO, and “practices in agricultural storage, handling, and shipping, have led to an environment where GMOs are not sufficiently controlled.” However, Cereal Crimes indicates companies like Ambrosial, Nature’s Path, Country Choice Organic, Lydia’s Organics, Kaia, Go Raw, Tierra Farm, Two Moms in the Raw, Grandy Oats and others are able to provide cereals that contain only 100% organic, GMO-free ingredients.
“Committed organic companies that source wholesome ingredients free from synthetic pesticides and GMOs are competing in the marketplace with giant multinationals such as Kraft Foods (Back to Nature), Pepsico (Mother’s) and Kellogg’s (Bear Naked/Kashi) and their misleading natural marketing claims,” Fantle added. “When marketers intentionally mislead consumers with their ‘natural’ products, they are taking business away from those companies providing truly safe and healthy food and supporting certified organic farmers.”
Though likely the most well-known brand, Kashi is far from the only cereal product scrutinized in Cereal Crimes and was only one of multiple cereals removed from Green Grocer shelves. Wood also took Barbara’s, Bear Naked, and Peace off his inventory for similar concerns about product ingredients. Signs were also placed in the area these brands were normally stocked. Reflecting on the firestorm sparked by his store’s signage, Wood says: “I sincerely hope that whatever comes from this that it will serve to continue the thoughtful discussion on our food supply and the problems with the use of GMOs.”
Last month, the 525 + partners of the “Just Label It!” Campaign submitted a record-breaking 1.1 million comments to the FDA in favor of labeling GMO foods. To date, the FDA has told the campaign: “We haven’t made a decision yet.”