I literally have tried writing about Cheerios for months. I have two drafts (well, now three with this one) sitting unpublished as I tried to figure out how to conquer this devil of a story.
Every time I turn around this story is changing– and not for the good. With it climaxing — so far– with a recall of 1.8 million boxes of Cheerios (yellow box) and Honey Nut Cheerios. A quick Google News search found 240,000 hits online when I searched “Cheerios Recall Gluten”. The headlines are not pretty.
I want to tell you my thoughts on this, the facts where they stand, and in the process I am hoping you all don’t devour me if I say something you don’t like. This is such a divisive and sensitive topic that I see folks jump down people’s throats in a second. Ultimately, as always is my end goal, I want to provide information so you can read reliable facts on the subject and come to your own conclusion.
First off, here are three things you should know before we go any further…
- I did attend one of the tours of the Cheerios sorting facilities back in May. I never wrote about it, in part, because I was struggling with what to say.
- I did request in June, and Cheerios accepted my request, that they be the event sponsor for the gluten-free booth at the MN State Fair event last August/September.
- My gluten-free daughter has no interest in trying Cheerios. Not because of what’s going on, but because she loves Corn Chex and wants nothing else. So I don’t have a “sick child” story or a “we had no problem with Cheerios” story to tell.
Catching you up
Back in February, General Mills announced the top five brands of Cheerios were going gluten free. The company said it would “sort out the small amount of wheat, rye and barley in our supply of whole oats that are inadvertently introduced at the farms where the oats were grown, or during transportation of the whole oats to the mill.” In a post I wrote on March 3rd, I stated “…it has been my belief that once a product is contaminated with gluten couldn’t it be uncontaminated”. It was a question that plagued me until I was in the sorting facility with General Mills on May 5th.
I specifically asked how I could wrap my brain around this cross contamination issue when I met with the company. I was told the hull stays on the oat until the wheat and barley are removed, then the oats are de-hulled. The staff took every step to explain to every attendee, the oats are tested four times during the process:
- The oats that come in from Canada are tested for gluten after they arrive in Minnesota and before any processing begins. That is so the company knows where it is starting from.
- Oats are tested for gluten after the sorting process
- Then the oats go to the mill to be processed into oat flour. Once milling is complete, the flour is tested again.
- The final test happens after the cereal is made in one of four plants across the country, including Lodi, California.
For a while in early July, when the gluten-free boxes started hitting store shelves, you would see on social media photos that elated parents took of their happy gluten free kids holding their gluten-free labeled Cheerios in the grocery store. But then Gluten-Free Watchdog founder Tricia Thompson, also known as the Gluten Free Dietitian, revealed her concerns about their testing protocol in multiple posts on her GFW website. Thompson explains the testing with the most clarity I have seen. Click here to read more on the GFW site.
Bottom line, is that Cheerios is testing multiple boxes of cereals together, and taking the average ppm score to call the cereal gluten free. Thompson is concerned some individual boxes will be over the 20 ppm limit required to meet the FDA’s gluten-free labeling guidelines. When she tested some yellow box Cheerios in August, they came back at less than 10 ppm of gluten — well below the less than 20 ppm standard.
That has been the ongoing controversy for weeks. During that time, social media was filled with stories of ailing gluten-free eaters telling the world how sick they were from eating Cheerios. While others were publicly stating they have had no problems with the cereal.
Last month, after receiving 39 complaints, the Food and Drug Administration decided to open an investigation, Gluten-Free Living magazine reported. Tuesday, the FDA’s website reported after receiving the complaints, it tested 36 samples of Cheerios products. Most all were safely below the less-than-20-ppm rule. But the advisory does add, “one sample of General Mills Honey Nut Cheerios labeled as gluten-free contained 43 parts per million (ppm) of gluten”, which exceeds the FDA’s gluten free definition. Thompson of Gluten-Free Watchdog confirmed that specific box was a part of the recall.
At the time the investigation initially launched, it was my assumption the probe would be over the oat sorting and any possible contamination that could have happened with that.
Cheerios Recalled over Gluten Exposure
But then Monday happened. The announcement that 1.8 million boxes of Cheerios are being recalled. The company admitted to a human error that happened at the Lodi, California plant, “wheat flour was inadvertently introduced into our gluten-free oat flour system at Lodi,” Jim Murphy, President of General Mills cereal division wrote. “That error resulted in an undeclared allergen – wheat – being present in products labeled as gluten free at levels above the FDA gluten-free standard”. General Mills said the oat flour used in this product was not the culprit and tested below 20 ppm. This morning, Thompson wrote an Open Letter to General Mills about the information they released. You can read it here.
Could the 39 complaints have a common denominator: Lodi, California? Or could the 39 complaints not only reveal the problem at Lodi, but also reveal problems with their oat sorting? An independent federal investigation may eventually hold the answer.
Cheerios is in a public relations nightmare right now. I wanted this to work. I like the idea of businesses having the tools to innovate to make products available to more people. But with each and every bit of bad news on Cheerios, I find myself shaking my head even more.
Part of the problem is this, the celiac and gluten-free community take so many knocks, both individually (a doctor thinking you’re nuts about your symptoms, or a server giving you the wrong food and calling it gluten free) and as a whole (take any bashing from the media for example), now here’s another one.
I am uncertain Cheerios can recover the trust of the core gluten-free community after this.
Now we wait and see how the rest of this drama unfolds. I, for one, will be watching.
*If you would like a refund for recalled Cheerios you can call General Mills Consumer Services at 1-800-775-8370.
*If you want to file a complaint with the FDA over Cheerios, you can call 1-800-332-1088.