General Mills to Feds (and Kids): Drop Dead

A colleague sent me this hilarious email message from one Tom Forsythe, vice president of corporate communications at General Mills. It seems that the mega cereal company found itself on the receiving end of a barrage of emails complaining about its opposition to the voluntary marketing to children guidelines proposed by the federal government. (I wrote about Big Food’s lobbying assault recently for Food Safety News.) So what else is the maker of Reese’s Puffs and Lucky Charms to do but put its PR machine into overdrive by explaining itself.  Here is the company’s pathetic attempt in its entirety.

Thank you for your email regarding the Interagency Working Group proposal.  Your email appears to have been electronically generated by or from the Center for Science in the Public Interest – and it was misaddressed.  We received a number of emails identical to yours – and all were misaddressed.  If you did not send an email yourself, we apologize for responding to you directly, but please allow me to respond nonetheless.

Your email states that we have been lobbying against the Interagency Working Group (IWG) proposal.  That is correct. We have serious concerns about the IWG proposal.

Our most advertised product is cereal – and we stand behind it. Cereal is one of the healthiest breakfast choices you can make. Ready-to-eat cereal has fewer calories than almost any other common breakfast option.  Cereal eaters consume less fat, less cholesterol and more fiber than non-cereal eaters.  If it is a General Mills cereal, it will also be a good or excellent source of whole grains.

Childhood obesity is a serious issue – and General Mills wants to be part of the solution.  But if the issue is obesity, cereal should perhaps be advertised more, not less.  Because frequent cereal eaters tend to have healthier body weights – including people who choose sweetened cereals.  It’s true of men.  It’s true of women.  It’s true of kids.

Data published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, based on the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services’ National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), found that frequent cereal eaters tend to have healthier body weights overall, including kids who eat sweetened cereals.  To be precise, kids who eat four to seven servings of cereal over a 14-day period are less likely to be overweight than kids who eat fewer than four servings of cereal. Kids who eat cereal more frequently, or more than seven times in 14 days, are even less likely to be overweight than kids who eat cereal less frequently.

Another study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association followed 2,000 American girls over a 10-year period.  It found that girls who demonstrated a consistent cereal-eating pattern had healthier body weights and lower body mass index (BMI) than those who did not.

General Mills’ ready-to-eat cereals are America’s number one source of whole grain at breakfast, and fortified cereals provide more iron, folic acid, zinc, B vitamins and fiber than any other conventional breakfast choice.  Eating cereal also has the added benefit of promoting milk consumption.  Forty-one percent of the milk children consume is with cereal – and the figure is even higher for African American and Hispanic children.

Many things have been written about the proposed IWG guidelines in the media and by those who seek to ban marketing to children – with many misstatements made. You can be assured than food and beverage companies have carefully studied every letter, comma and period in the proposal.  We know what it says, and what it does not.

For example, we know that 88 of the 100 most commonly consumed foods and beverages could not be marketed under the IWG guidelines.  The list of “banned” items under the guidelines would include essentially all cereals (including Cheerios), salads, whole wheat bread, yogurt, canned vegetables, and a host of other items universally recognized as healthy.

Despite the characterizations used to advance them, the IWG guidelines would not be voluntary, in our view.  The IWG guidelines are advanced by two of the agencies most responsible for regulating the food industry, as well as the agency most responsible for regulating advertising.  Ignoring their “voluntary guidance” would not be an option for most companies.  Regulation has already been threatened (even demanded) should companies choose not to comply – and litigation would inevitably follow.

The IWG guidelines also conflict with most existing government programs and definitions relative to food.  For example, many products that meet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s current definition of “healthy” could not be advertised under the IWG guidelines.  Many products included in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program fail the IWG standards, as do most products encouraged and subsidized under the USDA’s Women, Infants and Children Feeding Program (WIC).  Even low-calorie, nutrient dense foods of the type specifically encouraged by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines broadly fail to meet the unique stringency of the proposed WIG restrictions.  In fact, it is readily apparent that the new IWG guidelines have no parallel whatsoever – from a nutrition or science standpoint – with any other U.S. government food or nutrition program.

Curiously for guidelines purportedly developed to address obesity, the IWG guidelines also fail to include any reference to calories.  Beside the inexplicable omission of a measure as important as calories, this also works to the disadvantage of cereal products, which are inherently low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods.  Importantly, this is true of both unsweetened cereals and sweetened cereals, because both tend to have roughly equal numbers of calories per serving – most being about 120 calories per serving – whether sweetened or not.

Finally, your email suggests that companies review the IWG proposal and focus on providing substantive feedback via public comment.  We agree.  We have reviewed every detail of the IWG proposal – and we remain opposed, as our public comment explains.

Thank you again for your email.   If your name was forwarded via this form email by mistake, or without your knowledge, please accept our apologies for responding directly.

Sincerely,

Tom Forsythe
Vice President, Corporate Communications General Mills

6 Responses to “General Mills to Feds (and Kids): Drop Dead”

  1. SNAP Fail says:

    Mr Forsythe says: “Many products included in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program fail the IWG standards.”

    Oh wow. Cuz if it’s in the government’s program, it must be good!
    “Soft drinks, candy, cookies, snack crackers, and ice cream are food items and are therefore eligible items. Seafood, steak, and bakery cakes are also food items and are therefore eligible items.”
    http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/retailers/eligible.htm

  2. Kezia Snyder says:

    amazing

  3. [...] Michele Simon’s post about one company’s lack of desire to limit advertising to [...]

  4. “Cereal is one of the healthiest breakfast choices you can make. Ready-to-eat cereal has fewer calories than almost any other common breakfast option.” Because eggs, veggies, and fresh fruit no longer exist?? This is unbelievable!

  5. Nick Chavez says:

    I received the above email from GM following my participation in an online letter campaign supporting the IWG guidelines. Here is my response to them:

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. After some study of the IWG proposal and the issue in general, I have some comments.

    I’m not sure where the ‘banned’ list is, or what is on it. I think your conclusions- that fruit and bread and salad would also be on this banned list- are incorrect. If canned goods are banned, it is probably primarily due to high sodium content.

    The Guidelines target Marketing to Children- which I fully support, as I believe children are bombarded with way too much advertising that they are not financially or intellectually mature enough to make decisions about (I’m sure it helps move your product, though). It doesn’t say you can’t make your little sugar bombs, just whom you can market them to. Surely if your food is worth eating then you can sell it to the parents just as well as the kids, right?

    After reviewing a number of your cereal products, I am struck by the numbers that include Corn Syrup and Brown Sugar Syrup. Even Wheaties are made with corn syrup, and Total Plus Omega 3′s Honey Almond Flax is made with no less than 3 syrups!! Regular Cheerios is one of the very few cereals you produce that doesn’t have moderate to high levels of sugars. Perhaps if you refrained from using nutritionally bankrupt ingredients you would have less fear of nutritional guidelines or marketing to rational consumers (parents)?

    Perhaps 10 grams of sugar per serving- a common amount across your cereal line- is too much. I don’t think that you can merely point to your small handful of reduced sugar products and say ‘We’ve done our job here, the kids aren’t getting obese or diabetic from our products.’ You don’t just make (low sugar) Cheerios- you make Trix, Kix, Cocoa Puffs, Cocoa Puffs Combos, Lucky Charms, Chocolate Lucky Charms, Count Chocula, Honey Nut Clusters, Apple Cinnamon Cheerios, Reeses Puffs, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Chex Multi Bran, Oatmeal Crisp Crunchy Almond, Oatmeal Crisp Hearty Raisin, Boo Berry, Fiber One Caramel Delight, Fiber One Frosted Shredded Wheat, Fiber One Raisin Bran clusters, Raisin Nut Bran, Franken Berry, Golden Grahams, Basic 4, Total Cranberry Crunch, Total Raisin Bran, Chex Multi Bran, Wheaties Fuel- these cereals all have a minimum of 10 grams of sugar per serving- some ‘heathy’ options have up to 19 grams of sugar per serving! Most of your other cereals are not far off of the 10-gram sugar mark.

    Thank you for your consideration. As previously stated, you may be leading the way in your industry on product improvement. Please don’t stop until the benchmarks apply to most or all of your products- especially those marketed directly to kids.

  6. [...] strategies, like this letter, show that the food industry claims to have the health of their consumers at top interest. What do [...]

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