After PETA pressure, General Mills rewrites animal testing policy

General Mills' old animal testing sounded like it didn't like the practice, but allowed it. That wasn't good enough for PETA.

General Mills' old animal testing sounded like it didn't like the practice, but allowed it. That wasn't good enough for PETA. Associated Press

General Mills recently rewrote its company-wide policy on animal testing. Once a flexible position up for interpretation, the new policy is a firm statement against the use of animals.

Some companies brag about taking such a step, saying it puts them ahead of industry competitors on ethical grounds. General Mills, on the other hand, made its switch without fanfare, and is still keeping quiet about just why it did so. 

In fact, if you want to learn more information about General Mills' animal testing policy, you'll have to get it from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which is claiming a central role in getting the Fortune 500 food industry leader to change its ways.

In February 2016, PETA research-associated Frances Cheng wrote a letter addressed to Lee Anderson, director of "issue management" and state government regulations at General Mills, encouraging the company to "join other industry leaders in implementing a policy that would prohibit conducting, funding, or commissioning experiments on animals." 

At the time, General Mills' official stance on the topic read like it opposed animal testing... but left plenty of wiggle room. An archived version of the company's former policy goes like this [emphasis ours]:

It has long been General Mills’ policy to restrict and/or minimize the testing of food products and food ingredients on animals other than humans. As a result, the vast majority of our products do not incorporate testing of any kind on animals, other than humans, and we do not conduct research on animals, other than humans, in company laboratories.

No need to read between the lines: In her 2016 letter to General Mills, Cheng cited three recent scientific research papers (all published 2013 or later) which were "conducted and/or funded" by General Mills. In one paper, "dozens of rats" were put on either a high-starch diet or one featuring a synthetic sweetener. Then the rats were killed, and their feces was studied.

In another, a set of laboratory mice were fed "prebiotic- or probiotic-enriched diets," meaning foods that induce the growing of healthy gut bacteria (like garlic), or those that contain similar bacteria themselves (like yogurt). As with the sweetener vs. "high-starch diet," the food part of this research doesn't sound so bad. It's the end that's upsetting: As Cheng phrases it, the study ended when the mice's "necks were broken and they were decapitated."

General Mills was not only open to the idea, but downright responsive: Within a few weeks, the two sides had arranged a conference phone call to discuss the matter, according to emails PETA provided to City Pages. During the call, General Mills informed PETA representatives about a method of testing the digestibility of protein without the use of animal subjects; in a follow-up email, Cheng congratulated the company on its work.

She also sent sample language on policies the company could adopt to reflect an end to conducting (or subsidizing) animal testing. According to an email thread, Cheng kept at it, emailing Anderson on repeat occasions during the coming year. In a February 2017 email, Anderson wrote General Mills had "made progress on a new animal testing policy," and informs her that "since we last spoke," in March 2016, the company hadn't done any research involving animals, and he was "not aware" of any pending research papers.

Nine months went by, and Cheng checked in again, this time signing off her one-line email with a smiley face.

"We are close," Anderson wrote in reply, "but had a number of staff turnovers in key positions. The hazards of a bureaucracy! I hope to get back to you soon with an update."

That update came last month. In an email to Cheng, Anderson wrote that the company's new policy "more clearly aligns with our practice of not supporting or condoning the use of animal testing that is not required for food safety or quality." In a grateful reply, Cheng asked if General Mills would add the word "conduct" to its rewritten position; five days later, it did.

In one final email, Cheng wrote: "We hope you continue to help with the development of alternatives such as the Animal-Safe Accurate Protein Quality Score method, and we wish you continued success."

PETA says General Mills' cooperation comes "in contrast to many of [PETA's] earlier discussions with food companies." (PETA also takes credit for successfully exerting pressure on Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, among other major corporations.) By comparison to some, General Mills was "very open to reviewing its [animal testing] policy."

With PETA, perhaps, though not publicly. General Mills declined to get into specifics about its policy -- the new one, or the old one -- and in a statement, company spokesman Rob Litt said, "We routinely update our public statements to ensure they reflect our strong practices of ethical behavior, and the changes we made more accurately reflect our current practices."

If you're interested in how those current practices look, at least on paper, General Mills' corporate outlook on animal testing (circa February 2018) reads as follows:

"General Mills does not conduct, support or condone the use of animal testing that is not required for food safety or quality. We do not maintain any testing facilities. Where governmental agencies require animal testing to demonstrate safety or quality, studies are completed by accredited third-party facilities that follow proper animal welfare guidelines. We are advocates for replacing animal testing with other validated methods to support the safety and quality of new food ingredients and have financially supported research to develop alternative methods."