General mills generally getting it wrong

US food company apologises over consumer rights

There was a brief but entertaining interlude of legal doubt in relation to consumer behaviour in the US last week, with food company General Mills the source of the diversion. The firm, a giant of the industry, decided to quietly change the "legal terms" that apply to its customers and posted the new ones on the websites for its products, many of which are household names. The new terms were quite innovative from the legal perspective and just a little bit absurd from the point of view of most others.

In brief, they required consumers who dealt with the company in various ways such as through downloading coupons or recipes and then agreed to the terms, to give up their right to sue if something went wrong. Instead, they would be steered towards informal arbitration or negotiation.

Understandably, consumers weren't so keen on the change, especially when it was suggested by some that a Facebook "like" for a General Mills product such as Cheerios or Haagen-Dazs could immediately remove a right to challenge the company in a legal forum.

General Mills quickly rejected this, saying it “mischaracterised” the move, but the damage was done, especially because the company’s general intention was still, undeniably, to shift legal matters towards arbitration rather than the courts.


Within days, General Mills said that since consumers were so cross about the changes to their terms, the company would revert to the original, uncontroversial legal language that applied beforehand.

It even went so far as to say: “We’re sorry we even started down this path.”

Its intent, it said, was to “streamline complaints with arbitration, as we felt that would be helpful.” It added: “ Many companies do the same.”

It admitted though that “concern” had been caused by its changes being “widely mischaracterised” and said it had “listened”.

Well now, that was an avoidable storm. Two lessons emerge, regardless of which side of the Atlantic a business calls home: don’t underestimate the consumer and never look remotely like you’re trying to interfere with a clear legal right.