Cheerios underwent a high-profile makeover this summer, with a few varieties of the cereal — Original, Honey Nut, Apple Cinnamon, Frosted, and Multi-Grain Cheerios — going totally gluten free. It was a major development in the mainstreaming of gluten-free foods, which were once a category in the supermarket.
But all has not gone according to plan. On Monday, General Mills announced it would recall 1.8 million boxes of Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios produced at a plant in Lodi, California. The problem: they were made with wheat flour on a number of days in July, due to "human error."
Honey Nut Cheerios are the country's best selling cereal.
The recall does not affect Apple Cinnamon Cheerios, Frosted Cheerios and MultiGrain Cheerios, or any of General Mills' other gluten-free cereals.
"As president of General Mills' cereal business, I am embarrassed and truly sorry to announce today that we are recalling boxes of Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios produced on several dates at our Lodi, California facility," wrote Jim Murphy, president of the Cereal division at General Mills, on the company's blog.
The FDA recently investigated Cheerios' gluten-free claims after it received complaints from 39 consumers who said they became ill after eating Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios, according to Glutenfreeliving.com.
Gluten does not affect most people. But when it is consumed by those who have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects about 1% of Americans, or those with gluten-sensitivity, which affects about 6%, it can cause symptoms such as foggy headedness, abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea.
The Cheerios recall highlights the risks of building a wide-scale marketing campaign on a gluten-free promise. Facing declining cereal sales, General Mills looked to cater to the large numbers of gluten-free consumers. The giant food company already makes more than 850 gluten-free products across all its brands, which include Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Green Giant, and Yoplait.
While wheat flour inadvertently ended up in the Lodi plant, General Mills defends the process it had developed over five years to make the oat flour in its Cheerios gluten-free.
The cereal has always been made with oats, which are naturally gluten-free but are sometimes contaminated with wheat and other grains from processing equipment. Rather than sourcing certified gluten-free oats, which are in short supply and costlier, the company developed equipment that would filter out any gluten-containing contaminants from the 1 billion pounds of oats it uses annually.
Murphy said General Mills tested its oat supply and its oat flour supply on the dates the error happened and they tested as gluten free. "We are testing all finished products. We've also instituted additional flour handling protocols at all facilities to ensure this will not happen again," he wrote on the blog.
The weakness may lie in General Mills' testing procedures. Testing company Gluten Free Watchdog said on its site that because General Mills tests for gluten from a composite sample that comes from a number of boxes, higher levels of gluten in some boxes could be diluted by those with low levels. It recommends that the manufacturer test individual boxes instead.
The recalled Cheerios boxes have these "Better If Used By" code dates on the packaging.
Venessa Wong is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Wong covers the food industry.
Contact Venessa Wong at email@example.com.
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