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General Mills Inc. has halted shipments of Cheerios and other oat cereals after learning some of its grain was treated with a pesticide not approved for use on oats.

The company said Thursday it has no plans to recall boxes already in grocery stores and does not know how many boxes are affected. It described what happened as a technical problem and said the cereal is safe.The company also said it intended to resume within a few days shipments of cereal "processed in accordance with federal regulations."

Asked why the company has withheld further shipments if they are safe, spokesman Craig Shulstad said, "because we were in a technical violation and if that technicality is resolved, we will continue to ship."

A preliminary review by toxicologists from the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency showed the pesticide did not present a health hazard.

The pesticide was "virtually identical" to another that is approved for use on oats, said Austin Sullivan, vice president of corporate communications for Golden Valley, Minn.-based General Mills, the nation's No. 2 cerealmaker behind the Kellogg Co. of Battle Creek, Mich. "If they (the FDA and the EPA) thought there was a health hazard, they and we would have pulled the product long ago."

The FDA notified General Mills on June 10 that the pesticide, chlorpyrifos-ethyl, was detected in a routine inspection of grain elevators in Duluth and Superior, Wis.

In its subsequent investigation, General Mills found that an independent, licensed pesticide contractor had improperly used the pesticide as a substitute for chlorpyrifos-methyl, a similar chemical that is approved for use on oats. The improper treatments involving 15 million bushels of oats dated to May 1993.

"The contractor had made a substitution without advising us and it was not a proper substitution," General Mills President Steve Sanger told The Star Tribune. "There's no health or safety issue. It's a regulatory violation."

Both pesticides, manufactured by Dow Elanco, are used to prevent insect infestations, but chlorpyrifos-ethyl has not been registered with the FDA for use in treating oats. It is approved for use on wheat, corn, apples, cherries, beef, peanuts and many other crops, General Mills said.