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Ben & Jerry's Handed Setback In Labeling Lawsuit

We got questions and comments from many of you after our discussion of Ben & Jerry's social mission with Will Allen. Here's some of what we found out.
Kathleen Masterson
A suit claims Ben & Jerry's uses deceptive labeling to imply that its milk comes from "happy cows" raised in a healthy environment.

A court has refused to dismiss legal claims that Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc. uses deceptive labeling and marketing to mislead consumers about its commitment to a clean environment and humane farming.

The activists who brought the lawsuit are claiming victory in the first round of their legal battle.

The Organic Consumers Association alleges that the Vermont-based ice cream maker projects an environmentally responsible image that does not match reality.

Ben & Jerry’s asked a Washington, D.C. superior court to dismiss the case. But in a ruling released this week, Associate Judge Neal Kravitz said the suit “alleges facts sufficient to advance a plausible claim that consumers would be misled by Ben & Jerry’s labeling and marketing.”

Michael Colby, an organizer with the advocacy group Regeneration Vermont, said he hopes the suit puts pressure on Ben & Jerry’s to work harder to get farmers to change their practices.

“Given the strength of this ruling, it should put a little fear in Ben & Jerry’s and their corporate owner, Unilever,” he said.  “They really have two choices: they can negotiate with us to do the right thing without having to go further legally. Or based on this ruling, they really are facing a legal defeat which will really force them to stop making false claims.”

The suit – which also names Unilever, the conglomerate that owns the ice cream brand – says traces of the herbicide glyphosate have been found in some of the company’s ice cream. It also alleges that farms that supply Ben & Jerry's pollute Lake Champlain and Lake Carmi in Franklin County.

The Organic Consumers Association says the misleading labeling includes language that Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is made with milk and cream from “happy cows” raised in a healthy environment of "green fields [and] blue skies." It also says consumers are misled by the company’s “caring dairy” program – which pays farmers a premium to meet certain standards for animal care, environmental protection and fair labor practices.

Colby said less than 25 percent of the farms that ship to Ben & Jerry’s supplier have enrolled in the voluntary “caring dairy” program. He said that milk is then pooled with milk from conventional farms, where cows are confined and never see green pasture or blue sky.

“They’re making all kinds of false claims and all kinds of money – $800 million last year – while they’re leaving the damage for Vermonters to clean up the water, for the cows to be unhealthy and for the consumers to be threatened by what’s really in their products and how they’re really farming,” Colby said.

Ben & Jerry’s spokeswoman Laura Peterson declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said the company realizes that its work with Vermont farms is not yet finished.

“Our vision for the future is that all dairy used by Ben & Jerry’s comes from farms that have thriving livelihoods for farmers and farm workers; the highest standard of care for cows; feed grown ecologically, without the use of harmful chemicals,” she wrote.

In court, the company argued that no reasonable consumer would be deceived by its environmental claims. And it described the herbicide glyphosate – a chemical widely used on corn crops on dairy farms – as a “ubiquitous herbicide.”

The judge set a Jan. 22 deadline for Ben and Jerry’s to file a formal answer to the complaint.

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