ROCKVILLE, MD. — The announcement earlier this week that General Mills was recalling 1.8 million boxes of gluten-free Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios after wheat made it into the company’s supply chain in Lodi, Calif., is just a bump in the road, according to Packaged Facts. The research firm said the Minneapolis-based company “will undoubtedly continue to thrive and find success providing consumers with gluten-free alternatives.”
General Mills, which just began offering a range of gluten-free Cheerios varieties earlier this summer, recalled 4 days of production of Cheerios and 13 days of production of Honey Nut Cheerios made during July at the company’s plant in Lodi.
The recall followed 125 complaints from consumers about the cereal filed with the Food and Drug Administration. After learning of adverse reactions, the F.D.A. tested 36 samples of Cheerios products labeled as gluten-free from different manufacturing facilities and lots. Although most of the samples met the definition for gluten-free, the F.D.A. said one sample of General Mills Honey Nut Cheerios labeled as gluten-free contained 43 parts per million (p.p.m.) of gluten. This exceeds one of the criteria for F.D.A.’s gluten-free definition, that the food contain less than 20 p.p.m. of gluten.
According to General Mills, the contamination occurred while the company was in the process of changing five varieties of Cheerios cereal to meet the F.D.A. standard for gluten-free products. The company had tested its oat supply, and confirmed that it met the standard for gluten-free. The company also tested the oat flour used to make its gluten-free products at its Lodi facility and confirmed that its oat flour met the F.D.A. gluten-free standard.
During the dates in question, though, 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. General Mills said it believes this isolated incident resulted in wheat flour being introduced inadvertently into the gluten-free oat flour system at its Lodi facility, introducing an undeclared allergen — wheat — into products labeled as gluten free.
Despite the incident, research firm Packaged Facts expects General Mills to remain a big player in the growing gluten-free cereal category.
“The recall was unfortunate and will ultimately prove to be a learning experience for General Mills,” said David Sprinkle, research director for Packaged Facts, which published “Gluten-Free Foods in the U.S., 5th Edition.” “But General Mills has already made considerable inroads in the gluten-free market and will undoubtedly continue to thrive and find success providing consumers with gluten-free alternatives to the brands they know and love.”
The introduction of gluten-free Cheerios comes after almost a decade of planning, with the project beginning in 2007, about the same time that General Mill’s Chex brand moved toward becoming the first mainstream gluten-free cereal. In fact, executives at General Mills have hailed the introduction of gluten-free Cheerios as one of the company’s largest marketing offensives for cereal in many years.
“Cheerios’ move into the gluten-free category was perhaps inevitable considering the brand’s popularity coupled with the allure of the growing gluten-free cereal segment,” Mr. Sprinkle said. “Even excluding sales of General Mill’s Chex, we estimate that sales of gluten-free cereal increased 18% between 2013 and 2014 to reach $38 million last year.”In “Gluten-Free Foods in the U.S., 5th Edition,” Packaged Facts reveals that year-over-year growth in the gluten-free foods market has been impressive with sales of key categories (salty snacks, cracks, pasta, bread, cold/ready-to-eat cereal, cookies, baking mixes, frozen bread/dough, and flour) experiencing a compound annual growth rate of 34% over the five-year period ended in 2014. With sales already exceeding $1 billion, continued consumer concern over the negative health effects of gluten will help the market approach $2.5 billion in 2019, according to Packaged Facts.