In the GMO Labeling War, the Ice Cream Is the Political

Ben & Jerry’s is increasingly at odds with its parent company over genetically engineered ingredients.

(Photo: Raffi Asdourian/Flickr)

Aug 1, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

You’d be hard-pressed to imagine a less politicized space than the confines of an ice cream cone. Yet as Ben & Jerry’s has begun to enthusiastically reformulate its products and supply chain to align itself with Vermont’s new GMO labeling law, the relatively small but highly visible company has become a leader on the issue—and a potential thorn in the side of its behemoth parent company.

Unilever, the food megacorporation, bought Ben & Jerry’s for $326 million in 2000. In 2012, the company spent $467,100 to help defeat California’s GMO labeling ballot initiative, Proposition 37. Considering that Unilever owns more than 400 brands and made $66.9 billion in revenue in 2013, that political contribution and the ice cream company’s support of GMO labeling is an exceedingly small-change contradiction.

Yet Ben & Jerry’s is looking increasingly like an activist organization on the issue, going beyond an overhaul of its supply chain to comply with the new GMO labeling law passed in Vermont, where the company is based. The chocolate fudge brownie flavor has temporarily been renamed Food Fight! Fudge Brownie, and Ben & Jerry’s is both donating to and raising money for the Vermont Food Fight Fund, a war chest that will be used to defend the state’s controversial law from legal challenges.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, of which Unilever is a member, sued Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin a month after he signed the state’s labeling law.

“If all of us who support consumers’ right to know gave $1 to the Vermont Food Fight Fund,” reads a Ben & Jerry’s press release announcing the chocolate fudge brownie flavor name change, “we’d show other states that democracy can’t be bought by a handful of powerful corporations.”

“The deal seems to pave the way for Ben & Jerry’s to continue its maverick ways,” Constance Hays wrote for The New York Times when the company was bought out in 2000. That potential has clearly come to bear, and the maverick now threatens to make its parent company “look stupid” by being both an opponent and an ersatz advocate. That’s what NYU nutrition and public health professor Marion Nestle tells Bloomberg. “I suspect we will be hearing much more about this,” she says.