Annie's Inc. has been a vocal proponent of requiring labels on foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. General Mills Inc., like most large food companies, has fought such labeling efforts, notably in California and Washington.
So now that Golden Valley-based General Mills is buying Berkeley, Calif.-based Annie's for $820 million, what happens to Annie's stance on labeling for genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?
Well, apparently it stays the same.
"There is no change in Annie's stance on GMOs," Keely Fadrhonc, Annie's senior marketing communications manager, said in an e-mail. "We are committed to transparency around the topic — we know that General Mills understands our commitment and importance of our position on this issue to preserve the authenticity of this brand."
General Mills concurs. The company "understands Annie's position on this issue," General Mills spokeswoman Kirstie Foster wrote in an e-mail.
"While it's true that Annie's has supported state-based [labeling] initiatives, and General Mills has long opposed state-based labeling, we would probably both prefer a national solution to this question to help consumers," Foster wrote.
It won't be the first GMO conflict to arise in a food industry consolidation. Ben & Jerry's, based in Vermont, supported that state's law requiring GMO labeling, the first state to do so. But Ben & Jerry's corporate parent, Unilever, has opposed such efforts.
Since most corn, soybean and sugar beets are grown from genetically modified seeds, supermarkets are heavily stocked with foods containing GMO ingredients. Federal food safety regulators have approved the technology and it has the support of several science groups.
But suspicions remain, spurring public debate and referendums in some states to require GMO labels. The food industry has fought particularly hard against votes in California and Washington, both of which failed over the past couple of years.
General Mills gave a total of about $2 million to anti-labeling campaigns in those states, according to the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy group.
Foster said that General Mills supports "non-GMO labeling" — i.e. labels that tell consumers that a food does not include GMO ingredients. General Mills uses third-party-certified non-GMO labels on many products within its Cascadian Farm and Muir Glen organic brands, as well as its Larabar line of bars.
Annie's has been one of the more outspoken firms favoring GMO labeling.
"Annie's has been a longtime leader in the effort to give consumers the right to know of the presence of GMO ingredients in their food," said Scott Faber, executive director of Just Label It, a pro-labeling group and a sister organization to the Environmental Working Group. Annie's has given financial support to Just Label It.
Faber said he's not surprised Annie's will continue its GMO labeling stance under General Mills' wing. "I expect that a company that owes its loyalty to millions of moms in part because of their commitment to transparency would be allowed to continue to advocate in ways consistent with its values," he said.
Annie's is a leading seller of natural organic foods. It will continue to be based in Berkeley, and its CEO, John Foraker, is slated to stay for a year.
Foraker put a post on Annie's Facebook page saying that despite the sale, the firm's "mission, culture, and values and the things we stand for will remain the same." Many posters, however, weren't too happy about the deal, decrying Annie's for selling out to a big food company.
Annie's stockholders, however, have reason to smile. The company's shares soared $12.59, or 38 percent, to close at $46.10, 10 cents more than the per-share offering price. General Mills stock closed at $53.17, down 34 cents. The deal was announced after the market closed Monday.