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Apr 20, 2016 • By

Farmers see what makes Cheerios gluten free

General Mills is one of the largest oat buyers in North America. But rarely, if ever, has a group of farmers been given an in-depth tour of one of our facilities where we make gluten-free oat flour for Cheerios and other products.

But that’s just what happened last month when we invited nearly 30 Canadian farmers to visit our oat-milling operation in Fridley, Minnesota.

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By all indications, the trip appeared to be an eye-opener – particularly the importance of producing oats that are relatively free of wheat, barley and rye (that can get mixed in with the oats on farms as they’re grown, and later when the oats are transported to us).

The state of the oat supply we receive is important because of our ongoing production of oat flour that meets and exceeds gluten-free standards, now used in five varieties of Cheerios, and in Lucky Charms. (Read about our facility, which opened last year, that separates the small amounts of stray grains in our oats).

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To be labeled gluten-free, a product must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten – which amounts to a few stray grains inside a 5-gallon pail. This never mattered before Cheerios became gluten-free. Now it’s a huge deal.

The farmers who visited Fridley were impressed, and thankful for the opportunity.

“I think this is just awesome for growers to see this,” said Mike Ferguson, from Saskatchewan.

“All of these farmers are going to really appreciate seeing where their oats go and seeing what happens,” said Lorne Boundy, from Winnipeg, Manitoba. “We’re all very cognizant of what needs to be done to be able to put that gluten-free label on the box, and ultimately produce a healthy, nutritious breakfast.”

Several also remarked about the technology in the facility, the cleanliness and the family environment among our employees, as you hear in this audio interview with Jeff Freedman, a farmer from Saskatchewan.

Most of the oats we buy come from Canada, split roughly 50-50 between Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The visiting farmers grow some of the purest oats around.

“Compliments to you guys, really clean oats,” said Troy Bierbaum, a team leader at our Fridley plant who was part of the group that oversaw construction of our gluten-free production system. “Yours are some of the cleanest oats we see.”

In addition, their oats also have some of the highest levels of beta glucan, which allows us to add our heart-healthy, cholesterol-lowering claim on Cheerios.

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Many of the visiting farmers participate in the Canadian Field Print Initiative, which is essentially the Canadian version of the U.S.-based Field to Market Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture that is designed to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture.

Tom Rabaey, an agriculture researcher with General Mills, based in Le Sueur, Minnesota, and Jay Watson, our oats and small grains network manager with Supply Chain, have been working for the past year to forge closer relationships with oat growers.

“We thought it was important for them to see what it takes to get barley out of the oats,” said Rabaey. (Tom talks about the program with the farmers, and their visit, in this audio clip).

Ferguson said the trip was a learning experience and that he was appreciative of General Mills’ efforts to reach out to farmers.

“I think the biggest thing was that Tom and Jay came up to Canada and said, ‘Hey, we care.’”

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