|May 14, 2009|
|FDA Crackdown on Cheerios is Good for Consumers, Bad for PR|
|By Kevin McCauley|
|Following an eight-year exile, Food and Drug Administration sheriffs are back in town. |
That’s good news for consumers and bad news for marketers who went hog-wild playing up purported health benefits of food, personal care products and cosmetics (e.g., remember cosmeceuticals?) during the Bush II reign.
The FDA’s high-profile crackdown of American icon Cheerios is a loud warning shot. A juicier target does not exist. The re-awakened federal watchdog is riled that the pride of General Mills claims on its label that people eating the “Big Golden Os” can lower cholesterol four percent in six weeks.
In its “warning letter” to GM CEO Ken Powell, FDA says it is also more that a bit miffed that a company website claims “heart-health diets rich in whole grain foods can reduce the risk of heart disease.”
Mis-branding and half-truth, responds the reinvigorated FDA, which is hopping mad that GM left out the part that grains must be paired with fruit and vegetables to do any heart good.
A cornered GM issued a weak defense May 12, maintaining the science behind its cholesterol and heart health claims is solid. It expressed interest in working with the FDA. You betcha.
The FDA says if GM wants to make specific cholesterol lowering claims for Cheerios, it must do so as a drug, rather than food. It suggests that GM file a new drug application for Cheerios because only products regulated by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act can make the kind of specific health claims the company is making.
Go for it, GM.
The FDA provides an intriguing opening. What about marketing Cheerios as a drug? Think of the savings and competitive advantage. Drug Cheerios would be liberated from cutthroat supermarket competition and mindless brand extensions. Rather than the current line-up of Cheerios, Honey Nut, MultiGrain, Banana Nut, Cheerios Crunch, Berry Burst, Frosted, Apple Cinnamon, Fruity and Yogurt Burst, GM could sell highly targeted variations such as a Cheerios cholesterol-lowering/arthritis treatment combo, or Cheerios ED/colon helper. Imagine if physicians prescribed Cheerios to patients and the brand went head-to-head with cholesterol fighters Lipitor, Vytorin, Zocor, Zetia and Pravachol. No contest.
GM would surely capitalize on the massive consumer brand equity built over decades to crush its Rx competitors.
On second thought, it wouldn’t work. Local pharmacies don’t have the space to store gigantic boxes of Cheerios.
Abandon the health claims, Big G. The reality of last November’s Presidential election hasn’t sunk in yet at GM's headquarters in Minneapolis. Why? GM's statement notes the Cheerios boxes have carried the cholesterol claim for more than two years.
Mr. Powell, there are new sheriffs on the beat. Get used to it.
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