Ben & Jerry’s Takes Its Fight to Label GMOs to Washington

The beloved ice cream maker hopes legislators scoop up its take on labeling.

Ben & Jerry’s Takes Its Food Fight to Label GMOs to Washington

Jerry Greenfield (left) and Ben Cohen. (Photo: Eliza Krigman)

Eliza Krigman is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post. She writes about politics, business, and lifestyle issues.

Ice cream impresario Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s stormed the Capitol on Thursday in protest of a House bill that would prohibit the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms.

“Food companies should be proud to talk about the ingredients they put in their food,” Greenfield told reporters. “We should be telling you what’s in our products, and not trying to hide it.”

“It’s simply a matter of transparency and a consumer’s right to know,” said Greenfield, whose personal demeanor is every ounce the friendly and warm image the Ben & Jerry’s brand promotes.

Greenfield and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., want to quash a House bill, H.R. 4432, introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., in April. Pompeo dubbed the legislation the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, but opponents refer to it as the Deny Americans the Right to Know Act, or the DARK Act. Technically, the bill gives the Food and Drug Administration sole authority to require mandatory labeling of GMOs, and the FDA prefers a voluntary approach to the issue. If the law were enacted, states would be unable to mandate GMO labeling.

According to Pompeo and his well-heeled supporters in the food, biotechnology, and agricultural industries, forcing industry to disclose GMOs gives genetically engineered food a bad rap. “GMOs are safe and have a number of important benefits for people and our planet,” a Pompeo press release states.

“Requiring labels on foods that contain GMOs misleads consumers to believe that there is a health and safety risk, similar to warning labels on cigarettes,” Pompeo told reporters in the spring.  

But all that is hogwash, if you ask Greenfield or DeFazio.

There is no meaningful proof that genetically engineered food is safe, DeFazio said. It has not “been subject to any impartial peer-reviewed scientific testing to determine” if it’s safe, he said.

DeFazio rejected the idea that labeling foods with GMO would needlessly scare consumers.

“I’d like to think the American people are a little smarter than that,” DeFazio said. As far as safety is concerned, “you can’t take these things on faith.”

Vermont, where Ben & Jerry’s got its start, has become ground zero in the nationwide battle over labeling genetically engineered food. To the chagrin of the food and agricultural industries, Vermont passed a law this spring requiring the disclosure of GMOs on food labeling—the first state to do so. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and other groups have since sued the state, and Vermont, with the support of Ben & Jerry’s, is fighting back.

To help raise the legal defense funds Vermont will need for the lawsuit, Ben & Jerry’s has ceremoniously renamed one of its flavors “Food Fight Fudge Brownie.” During the month of July, one dollar of every purchase of that flavor will go to help Vermont fight the lawsuit.

Similar efforts to require the labeling of GMOs on food are taking place in approximately 20 other states.

Pro-labeling advocates, such as the Environmental Working Group and the Center for Food Safety, delivered to lawmakers Thursday some 500,000 names of people who oppose Pompeo’s bill and instead would like to see a measure requiring federal label on G.E. foods adopted.

Pressed to consider why food manufacturers are fighting so hard against transparency, Greenfield said it’s about the bottom line.

“With most things in the corporate world, it probably comes down to money,” he told TakePart. “I think it’s a pretty tough position for any company to say, 'We don’t want to tell the truth to our customers.' ”

“When push comes to shove, at the end of the day, companies will come to the side of consumers,” Greenfield added. “They may not be taking the lead on it, but they will come along with it when it’s clear that’s what consumers want.”

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