Given Ben & Jerry’s tree-hugging image, it might be a surprise to some of its fans that the company’s ice cream includes genetically modified organisms (GMOs) among its ingredients.
It does, but now the Unilever (UL -0.17%) brand is promising to eliminate the controversial food products, pledging to go completely GMO-free by 2014. Currently, about 80% of ingredients in its U.S. and Canadian ice creams are sourced as non-GMO products.
“We have a long history of siding with consumers and their right to know what’s in their food. We fought long and hard for labeling of rBGH, which was the first genetically engineered technology used in the US food system,” Ben & Jerry’s said.
Ben & Jerry’s announcement underscores the difficulty for consumers in identifying food products that contain GMOs, which have been genetically engineered to resist herbicides and insecticides, such as “Roundup ready” plants that resist the herbicide Roundup, allowing farmers to treat their fields without killing their crops. GMO critics believe the altered crops could introduce new allergens or toxins into the food system and the environment.
The advocacy group Just Label It says most Americans want mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods, although no law currently requires companies to disclose which ingredients are GMOs. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Ben & Jerry’s home state — Vermont — may become the country’s first to mandate GMO labeling.)
The ice cream maker’s position also illustrates how natural food brands sometimes come into conflict with their corporate parents. Unilever, for example, donated about half a million dollars to defeat a California ballot initiative that would have required companies to disclose GMOs, according to Natural News, which has called on consumers to stop buying Ben & Jerry’s in protest. It also singled out other popular “natural” brands whose parent companies donated money to defeat the measure, such as Cascadian Farm owner General Mills (GIS +0.78%).
Ben & Jerry’s delivered some sobering news in its announcement, noting that more than half of processed food products in grocery stores contain at least one GMO. “It’s likely that almost all of us eat foods that contain GMOs on a regular basis,” the company said.
Then there’s the complexity of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavors, which can include almost 40 ingredients. Finding replacements that aren’t only GMO-free but are also fair-trade and then making sure the products arrive at factories on time are among the reasons the company’s transition away from GMOs may last into 2014.