It’s hard not to love Ben & Jerry’s. Miller proudly touts the company’s record on other humanitarian and foodie causes. It long ago stopped using recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH, and it has pushed back against states that tried to restrict rBGH labeling. Entry-level Ben & Jerry’s employees earn $15.97, and the company has advocated for expanded gay marriage rights. Neither Ben Cohen nor Jerry Greenfield, the two co-founders and namesakes, runs the company any longer; it’s been a wholly owned subsidiary of Unilever since 2000.
Ben & Jerry’s has an odd history with GMOs, though. Two years ago, Unilever spent nearly half a million dollars trying to defeat a California GMO-labeling ballot initiative, and labeling proponents were miffed. Now, the company is phasing out GMOs from its products—14 of its 50 flavors are now GMO-free. It's also lobbying to pass labeling bills in Oregon and elsewhere, complete with what sounds like some sort of nationwide tour of Chunky-Monkey-and-food-policy fireside chats.
“We'll be working with our franchise scoop shops to talk about these issues,” Miller said. “We'll have a scoop truck giving away ice cream and talking about the ballot initiatives. We'll be doing some in-kind advertising in support of the campaign.”
Miller says the shift away from GM ingredients hasn’t cut into the company’s bottom line by much, but that’s partly because ice cream doesn’t have a lot of genetically modifiable ingredients. The most common GMO crop in America is Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” corn, which would only make a trace appearance—it might go into the corn syrup used in making Ben & Jerry’s caramel swirl, for example.
To Miller, labeling is all about transparency. After all, he says, we label orange juice when it comes from concentrate, even though there’s nothing objectively unhealthy about concentrate.
“Of course consumers have a right to know what they're buying," he said. "We're proud of what we produce, proud of the ingredients in those products, and happy to tell people what's in our stuff.”
There is no scientific evidence that GMOs are harmful to health. But it does seem like even though anti-GMO groups say labeling is only about empowering customers, what regular people hear is that GMOs need to be labeled because they are dangerous to eat. According to an ABC News poll conducted last year, 52 percent of people believe GMOs are unsafe, 13 percent are unsure, and just over a third believe they’re safe to eat. Nearly everyone in the same poll—93 percent—said they supported GMO food labeling, and most of those people said that if they knew which foods contained GMOs, they would be less likely to buy them.
There’s some interesting psychology research propping up these fears: Risks that are man-made feel more dangerous than those that are natural. The sun and nuclear accidents both release radiation, and yet we lay by the pool and protest nuclear power plants.