Damage Control PR by Kellogg Division under the Microscope
Cornucopia, WI -- A photo of a sign explaining why Kashi cereal products were pulled from the shelves of a natural foods retailer has sparked an angry consumer backlash aimed at Kashi for its use of suspect cereal ingredients.
The sign appeared in the aisles of the Green Grocer, based in Portsmouth, R.I. Owner John Wood read a report from The Cornucopia Institute, Cereal Crimes, that detailed the use of GMO grains and the presence of pesticide residues found on conventional grains that were then packaged as "natural" cereals for sale, by Kashi, to health-conscious consumers.
Kashi, one of the nation's leading "natural" brands, owned by Kellogg, was one of the brands featured in the report. Cereal Crimes contrasts the natural cereals with certified organic cereals which prohibit genetically modified grains and synthetic pesticides in organic food production.
Last week images of the sign went viral on the web. More than 11,000 "shares" from just one of many Facebook pages spread across the web, and angry consumers began calling and writing Kashi and posting comments on the company's Facebook page expressing their outrage at being misled by the company's marketing spin.
"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 consumer, on Kashi's Facebook page. "Yours is the only brand cereal I have bought for years. Not anymore! You are despicable. Everything you supposedly stand for is a lie," added another angry consumer, among the scores commenting.
For a period of time on Wednesday, April 25, Kashi's consumer call-in line provided only a recorded message, indicating they were "temporarily" not accepting calls. When the company again began accepting calls, a Kashi consumer affairs employee, Rick Duran, told a Cornucopia staff member that "no actual testing" of their cereal products had been performed. This mimicked the analysis also offered in a response by the company in an online video posted that same afternoon on the Kashi Facebook page. The video spokesperson called Cornucopia's information "scientifically inaccurate and misleading because it was not based on actual testing of Kashi products."
"This characterization of our work by Kashi is blatantly false," said Will Fantle, Cornucopia's Research Director. "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."
The Kashi video also suggested, disingenuously, that any genetically engineered contamination in their food was from incidental sources rather than crops intentionally grown from GMO seed. While acknowledging that over 80% of the soybeans grown in North America are GMO, they explain that, "practices in agricultural storage, handling, and shipping, have lead to an environment where GMOs are not sufficiently controlled."
"This is classic public relations spin and crisis communications work, where corporations use misinformation to try to cover their tracks," said Rebekah Wilce, of the Center for Media and Democracy/PRWatch, which helps expose corporate PR tactics. "Kashi is owned by the Kellogg Company, a $13 billion convenience food manufacturer, since 2000, although Kashi boxes don't make that clearly apparent," Wilce added.
The retailer at the epicenter of this dustup, Green Grocer's John Wood, notes that Kashi was not the only cereal product he removed from his shelves. Barbara's (Weetabix), Bare Naked, and Peace were other cereal brands pulled for similar concerns about product ingredients and he had placed similar signs on the shelves explaining the action. Like Kashi, these "natural" cereals also went under the microscope in Cornucopia's investigation.
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."
Since the controversial photo went viral, Cornucopia has experienced a major uptick in web visitors downloading the Cereal Crimes report, viewing its scorecard comparing organic and natural brands and viewing its short video.
"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" said Fantle. "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."
"We hope that companies like Kashi, marketing what they call natural foods, will instead choose to meet their consumers' expectations by sourcing truly organic ingredients," Fantle added.
Kashi's Rick Duran told Cornucopia staff that the company makes over 100 products, and although proclaiming their dedication to organics, only four of these are certified organic. Another three products are produced from verified non-GMO grains (7 Whole Grains) Unsaid was the fact that there are currently no GMO grains grown for any of the ingredients used in the 7 Whole Grains cereal products.
The Cornucopia Institute has collected and saved, as a document, many of the more than 200 comments posted by angry customers on Kashi's Facebook page, in the event that they disappear or are scrubbed from the site. This document is available upon request.