Ben & Jerry's ice cream has become synonymous with quality in recent years, and I am not just talking about taste. The ice cream company is known for taking a stand on ethical issues. Their voices (and their ice cream) have become symbols of issues relating to everything from drilling in Alaska's Arctic wilderness to foods from cloned animals and genetic engineering (GMOs).
So this last week's news from an organic activist organization was a bombshell. Private testing revealed traces of glyphosate in some ice cream samples. According to the Organic Consumers Association, "[ten] out of 11 samples tested positive for Roundup (glyphosate and AMPA) herbicide contamination."
The organization has been after Ben & Jerry's to transition its supply chain to organic products for some time, and says the company should put its money where its mouth is (or in this case, its ice cream scoop).
"For 20 years, activists have played nice with Ben & Jerry’s, politely making the case that the company should live up to its claims of 'social responsibility' and all that that expression promises," OCA said in a recent newsletter." The fact that the company doesn't use organic milk, the activists say, is evidence that Ben & Jerry's is disingenuous and is "scamming consumers."
Is it? According to Euromonitor, Ben & Jerry's global revenue in 2015 was $1.23 billion. By Sept. 2016, its sales had grown to $1.32 billion (Statistic Brain), with more than 5,800 purchasing locations across the world. Surely the consumers who helped to make it a household name in big box stores and niche markets over the past 30 years are aware that Ben & Jerry's confections aren't made with organic milk.
But OCA apparently isn't looking for statistics -- or not the ones that speak about the ice cream maker's popularity at least. They are looking for impact.
And that's just what they got last week when the news of their sample testing was picked up by the New York Times and run as a headline story.
For its part, the NYT did interview a Ben & Jerry's representative and did point out that the amount of glyphosate was "indeed small." But as an informational article about scientific testing and what those results might mean, it left a lot out, says Dr. Kevin Folta, a professor in horticultural sciences at the University of Florida.
Folta, who writes for the Genetic Literacy Project, wasn't the first to question the NYT's approach to this story, which he points out failed to include basic information like links to the scientific report, information about how the tests were done or the fact that testing milk-based products accurately for glyphosate can be "incredibly difficult."
"Ice cream is complex stuff, and each type of ice cream will have to be treated individually to understand the baseline for the matrix, as well as other interfering molecules. There is no evidence that they did this," or how it was done, given that the tests can take "weeks to months," said Folta. He goes on to mention a number of other scientific holes, like the absence of a control group and independent testing, that you and I, concerned about the quality of our food and where our money goes, would likely not notice.
OCA, however, says it is committed to its goal to "force Ben & Jerry's to go 100% organic." And to do that, it's turning to the recently tried-and-true method of calling for a widespread boycott of Ben & Jerry's ice cream.
It's lined up cities across the nation, from New York to Los Angeles, to organize "Dump Ben and Jerry's" protests with the aim of forcing the company to convert its milk source to organic brands.
Boycott and divestment strategies have become a popular way of snagging the attention of large companies that don't understand or don't take into account the interests of their consumers. The DefundDAPL protests, which resulted in cities and private citizens pulling their money out of banks that funded the Dakota Access Pipeline, is perhaps the most recent example of citizen advocacy.
But is the boycott and divestment of an ice cream company really the same?
Is Ben & Jerry's, which has become an advocate itself for ethical sponsorship, likely to bow to a widespread boycott and to do so without clear, impartial evidence of its wrongdoing? And should we really expect it to?
Ironically, a boycott works because the companies it targets are large enough not to fail. In most cases, the consumers and cities that withdrew their business from Wells Fargo and other funders of the DAPL project weren't looking to kill off a banking institution. They were looking to change minds about where money was invested and the way that shareholders saw their relationship to consumers.
But there's a difference in changing investment strategies and undermining the worth of a business' brand and product. Labeling an ice cream manufacturer as dishonest and "scamming" consumers based on hidden testing methods doesn't teach a company a lesson about the value of organic products. It destroys trust and potentially, future growth.
"[The] overarching goal [of the OCA's effort] is to sneak a clickbait title in front of the public, knowing that the story of poison in your food gets readers, fulfills an activist agenda, and most of all spreads fear of perfectly safe food," said Folta, who admits up front that he supports organic food production.
As for Ben & Jerry's the company has acknowledged the OCA's announcement of glyphosate in the ice cream and has come back with some statistics. They aren't, perhaps, what diehard fans would want to hear, but they are an honest portrayal of the industrialized world we live in today.
"At Ben & Jerry’s, we were concerned to learn that recent testing revealed trace levels of the herbicide glyphosate in several of our flavors. Concerned, but not totally surprised. It’s everywhere from mainstream food, to natural food, to rainwater and that’s a problem," notes the company.
To put that unsavory fact into perspective, the owners explain, consider the following stats:
What also wasn't noted in the Organic Consumers Association's press releases (or the New York Times' article) is the presence of glyphosate drift: the challenge of protecting non-GMO-sourced food from pesticides already in the environment.
"Glyphosate is one of the most widely used herbicides in agriculture and is one of the most pervasive chemicals in our food system," said the company. As would be expected of Ben & Jerry's, it's working on finding out how the chemical entered its supply chain.