In February, General Mills announced the addition of five gluten-free Cheerios (Original, Honey Nut, Multigrain, Apple Cinnamon, and Frosted) with the promise of these new items hitting stores in July. After years of hard work, the company claimed to have developed a system that would “sort out the small amount of wheat, rye, and barley in our supply of whole oats that are inadvertently introduced at farms where the oats were grown or during transportation of the whole oats to the mill.” This process means that General Mills’ gluten-free Cheerios meet the FDA’s standards for gluten-free food. Yet, situated about the coveted “gluten-free” label lies the ingredients “whole grain oats” and “oat bran” without the safe word of “gluten-free” before them.
On October 5, General Mills issued a voluntary recall of almost 1.8 million boxes of Original and Honey Nut Cheerios from their Lodi, California facility due to the presence of “an undeclared allergen—wheat—with potential adverse health effects.” The recall included four days’ worth of production of Original Cheerios and 13 days of Honey Nut Cheerios at this particular facility.
The one poison that the cereal was not supposed to contain was transferred into the gluten-free Cheerios in an “isolated incident.”
According to a blog post on Cheerio’s website, the mistake occurred as a result of a confusion during transportation: “During the dates in question, the company’s Lodi facility lost rail service, and the company’s gluten-free oat flour was off-loaded from rail cars and transferred to trucks. The company believes this isolated incident resulted in wheat flour being inadvertently introduced into the gluten free oat flour system at its Lodi facility, introducing an undeclared allergen – wheat – into products labeled as gluten free.”
Somehow, changing the mode of transportation introduced gluten into gluten-free cereal.
When the gluten-free line of Cheerios launched, almost 2 million boxes were being accidentally contaminated. General Mills’ big reveal resulted in countless cases of illness from Celiacs and individuals with gluten-intolerance, making it difficult to trust that this incident won’t occur again in the future.
Despite General Mills’ formal way of addressing the issue, they seemed to gloss over the fact that there were most likely other gluten-free flavors being made at the Lodi, CA facility during this time. Are they safe for gluten-free consumption?
Furthermore, the company admits to having reports of illness from the start. In an email I received from General Mills on October 8, they stated, “We have been investigating reports of illness from the beginning….There are other reports of illness, but our other tested products have met the gluten free standard.” The company firmly believes their products are 100% gluten-free and safe for individuals with Celiac disease, so their reasoning is that any issue with their products must stem from an allergy to oats.
My mom purchased the Original, Honey Nut, and Apple Cinnamon Cheerios just a few weeks ago. Within a couple of days of having a bowl each morning, my sister started showing symptoms of a Celiac reaction. Within a week of having a bowl (sometimes two) each day, my brother (the most resistant to gluten reactions) said that he was having issues. None of these boxes were part of the October 5 recall. None of us have an issue eating gluten-free oats. Neither my brother nor my sister were aware that the recall was even happening.
In September, a friend emailed General Mills about her family (herself, her husband, and her three adult children all have Celiac disease) having allergic reactions to the gluten-free Cheerios. Here is part of General Mills’ email response: “We’re truly sorry to hear about your experience. While we are confident our product is Gluten-Free, we know that there will always be people who suffer from allergies and other conditions that prevent them from eating Gluten-Free Cheerios. We recommend you talk to your doctor, especially if you have sensitivity to oat products.”
Despite having the logo of a well-known Celiac disease foundation on the side of their “gluten-free” boxes, General Mills does not have full backing from all Celiac support groups. Vice president of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) Jennifer North told me in a recent email that the organization has “postponed our promotion of Cheerios until we are comfortable that the processes that have been put into place are adequate to guarantee that every box is under 20ppm.”
However, it was a blog post from the president of this organization that really captured the reason why this mislabeling is so devastating to Celiacs: “We are constantly on call. We have to analyze everything we put into our mouths, and we are always at-risk for getting sick. Why? Because we self-manage our disease. Celiac disease is a serious genetic autoimmune disease, and we have little guidance from doctors, a heavy reliance on labeling laws that can be confusing, an insufficient treatment, and no pharmaceutical drug therapy.”
I commend General Mills for attempting to make their beloved Cheerios gluten-free so we can enjoy a cereal from our childhood, but contrary to what the media would lead you to believe, Celiac disease is an actual autoimmune disorder. We are gluten-free to live a healthy life.
You can’t slap a gluten-free label on something then announce the presence of the very poison we spend our lives avoiding. This situation is a prime example of why Celiacs must be on constant alert: gluten can be hidden anywhere. When a company claims to have a gluten-free product and they’re taking all the precautions to be so, we believe you. But, General Mills, when you mislead us, we will never trust you again.
-General Mills’ blog post about the gluten-free Cheerios
-NFCA post about General Mills’ recall
-Article on Cheerio’s website about recall, includes FAQ
-Letter to me from Cheerios
-Letter to Cari from General Mills
-Blog post from NFCA president
-USA TODAY article