Since first opening at a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vermont, Ben & Jerry’s has been scooping goodness for over 30 years. For its first two decades, the company was also a model for corporate social responsibility before CSR became a fashionable buzzword. In 2000, howls of protest erupted when the Dutch-British conglomerate Unilever purchased the brand. The company did not have a choice under American corporate law–had its Board of Directors and management refused to sell, they could have been sued, and there would have been a strong chance Ben & Jerry’s would not even exist today. To its credit, Unilever has allowed the Vermont icon to continue its mission of social activism.
Ben & Jerry’s accomplished a lot in raising awareness of the challenges that small farmers face. The company was part of Vermont’s food renaissance due in part to the company’s commitment to source from local dairy farmers. With the scale and reach that Ben & Jerry’s has today, that is a challenge, but the company still promotes social and political activism. Another change occurred this week: Ben & Jerry’s colorful cartons will no longer have the “all natural” label posted on their labels.
“All natural” was a label that was so 1970s anyway, and it has landed many companies in trouble. As consumers have scrutinized the origins of their favorite food products, the “natural” label just does not cut the mustard–or the Chunky Monkey.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) to some the country’s largest party pooper–to others the leader in holding companies accountable to their claims while reducing our collective saturated fat intake–has been particularly scathing towards Ben & Jerry’s labeling claims, and has ratted out the company to the FDA as far back as 2002, describing the company’s use of “natural” as “deceptive.”
Deception is a strong accusation–an informal poll I took revealed that many consumers down the ice cream not because of the company’s stance on social activism, but because they love the creative (and sometimes dubious) concoctions. But Ben & Jerry’s axing of the label a smart business move in the long run. While CSPI has done good work in raising awareness of health issues from saturated fat and other nasty ingredients, the CSPI is also like the hippie at the party who tells you that everything you do, eat, and think is wrong. The public relations headache from a company that has demolished the reputation of Mexican food, Chinese take-out, and Italian decadence is simply not worth rebuttals by public relations folk.
So is Ben & Jerry’s now just another faceless, mean-spirited company polluting bodies and corrupting the planet? Hardly. While it is always easy to criticize a company over the actions it is not taking instead of giving credit for the work that it is actively doing, we should remember that considering Ben & Jerry’s parent company, it is impressive they are able to do any good at all. The company is making more changes in its food sourcing–caged eggs (yes, that hardly means chickens hang out freely all day) will be the norm by the end of this year, and the company will buy more fair trade ingredients. They are not a perfect company–but anyone can walk down any supermarket aisle and find plenty of companies that induce far more cringing.
If you want natural ice cream without the additives, one of the best options is to buy a $50 ice cream maker and make it yourself. Commercial ice cream has ingredients that you cannot pronounce for two main reasons: they allow the product to store for a longer period of time, and offer a texture to which consumers have been accustomed. You can also support local businesses like Washington, DC’s Sweet Bite Creamery, which has caused a sensation at the capital’s farmers markets. To that end, here’s another reason for that long list of ingredients in your ice cream: regulations. Businesses like Sweet Bite cannot sell their products in many municipalities because health codes often require that the entire ice cream base be pasteurized–which negates the whole point of organic goodness in the first place. There is no point to spend more on organic local ingredients in such mix if the entire batch is a step away from incineration.
So keep enjoying that Ben & Jerry’s. Just limit your intake so CSPI, or the cardiologist, does not come knocking at your door. And pass the Cherry Garcia!