Burlington Free Press
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
By Victoria Welch
Free Press Staff Writer
A national animal protection organization spoke out Monday against Ben & Jerry’s, claiming the ice cream maker buys eggs produced by hens cooped in tight cages, a practice that belies Ben & Jerry’s reputation as a socially and environmentally conscious company.
“No socially responsible company ought to be supporting that kind of animal cruelty,” said Paul Shapiro, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society of United States.
Ben & Jerry’s spokesman Sean Greenwood said his company is aware of Humane Society’s concerns, and has not ruled out switching to cage-free eggs.
“Obviously we take the issue of animal welfare real seriously,” Greenwood said. The company’s best option for buying the eggs used in all Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and frozen yogurts is “something that we are still trying to evaluate, what is the best way for us to proceed at this point.”
The Humane Society’s issue with Ben & Jerry’s stems from a campaign against Michael Foods, a Minnesota-based foodservice company that provides eggs and potatoes to grocery stores and companies such as Ben & Jerry’s.
In a report released late last week on its Web site, Humane Society of United States said it found in an undercover investigation that Michael Foods hens died of dehydration and starvation, and the dead birds were kept in cages with live ones. The hens’ cages were too small for the birds to spread their wings, according to the report.
The Burlington Free Press made three phone calls Monday to Michael Foods’ corporate headquarters in Minnetonka, Minn., asking for comment, but those calls were not returned.
The report, titled “A Scoop of Lies,” also outlines nearly a year of discussions with Ben & Jerry’s in which the organization asked the company to stop doing business with Michael Foods.
Shapiro said at least two other Michael Foods customers — Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods grocery chains — have pledged to switch to cage-free eggs; more than 100 U.S. colleges and universities have reduced the use of caged bird eggs or eliminated them entirely.
“This is a trend of social responsibility that Ben & Jerry’s should be behind,” Shapiro said. “There’s so much precedent of companies changing. Ben & Jerry’s shouldn’t find itself on the back burner.”
For much of its 28-year history, Ben & Jerry’s has been known for its social awareness and environmental consciousness. Founders and former owners Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield established in 1985 the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, designed to fund community-oriented projects. In 1989, the company spoke out against the use of bovine growth hormone, citing concerns about economic impacts on family farms.
The company was purchased by Anglo-Dutch corporation Unilever for $326 million in 2000.
The company’s mission statement includes a pledge “to make, distribute and sell the finest quality all natural ice cream and euphoric concoctions with a continued commitment to incorporating wholesome, natural ingredients and promoting business practices that respect the Earth and the Environment.”
On the Ben & Jerry’s Web site, the company includes an item about free-range chickens in its Frequently Asked Questions section:
“Our eggs come to us through a broker who deals with a number of suppliers of large poultry operations, none of which are free-range farms,” the company writes in its answer. “According to this broker, ‘the birds are maintained under humane and ethical standards established by the U.S. poultry industry for proper treatment of laying fowl, providing access to food, water, allocation of space per bird, air circulation, and protection from the elements.’ The volume of eggs we require makes sourcing our eggs exclusively from free-range farms not feasible.”
Greenwood, speaking on behalf of Ben & Jerry’s, said his company was and has continued to be in contact with Humane Society of United States, an organization that is not directly affiliated with regional or local humane societies in Vermont. Ben & Jerry’s was not comfortable with the Humane Society of United States’ timetable for discontinuing the use of eggs from caged birds, Greenwood said.
“We really like the Humane Society. We value what they’re about and appreciate their work on this,” Greenwood said. “In the process of communicating back and forth on this, we have learned a lot. Our discussions with them helped us and have increased our learning regarding egg suppliers.”
The problem, Greenwood said, is that there continues to be large gray areas of information around proper hen care. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream produced in the United Kingdom does use eggs from cage-free hens, but those animals are more readily available and the eggs affordable than their American counterparts.
Shapiro said that, as a company known for thinking outside the corporate box and pushing for social awareness, Ben & Jerry’s is obligated to find every way to make those practices feasible stateside.
“Ben & Jerry’s is doing many things that are more socially responsible than other companies. But they are making claims that other companies don’t make,” Shapiro said. “If they’re making these claims, it’s important that they are living up to them.”
Monday’s news left at least one local humane society in a quandary. B.J. Rogers, executive director of the Humane Society of Chittenden County, said Monday that he had not read Humane Society of United States’ allegations against Ben & Jerry’s. The company has long supported his organization, he said, and often supplies free ice cream to Humane Society of Chittenden County events — including a fundraiser scheduled for Thursday.
His staff was in the process Monday of contacting Ben & Jerry’s officials to discuss the matter, Rogers said.
“If it is a case that there’s question about their suppliers treating their animals humanely, that would be a concern for us,” Rogers said. If Ben & Jerry’s does use a producer that treats animals cruelly, “we would advocate directly to change those practices. If they refused to change those, we would have to reconsider accepting their gift, in the form of free ice cream for events.
“Ben & Jerry’s has always been very good to us,” Rogers said, “but we are committed to our mission before participants’ getting free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.”