Ben & Jerry's - veggie or not? Yes, but it depends who you ask

18 December 2009

Judging by your emails, some people will never sleep again unless we provide some answers as to whether Ben & Jerry's ice cream is "veggie friendly" or not. The furore stems from Bitterwallet receiving a document from Unilever stating a third of Ben & Jerry's products are "unsuitable for a vegetarian diet due to the presence of (other) non-vegetarian ingredients". Despite this, the Ben & Jerry's website promotes all its products as "veggie friendly". What the blinking hell is going on?

Bitterwallet - Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream

See, it depends how you define vegetarian - there are subtle but important differences depending where a product is manufactured. The products deemed unsuitable are produced in the US where their definition is different, and so they can't carry the recognised V symbol denoting them to be vegetarian produce - the symbol used by the European Vegetarian Union (EVU) to denote food that meets strict guidelines.

This is what Unilever had to say when Bitterwallet contacted them:

I can confirm that all Ben & Jerry’s products are vegetarian - we do not use any meat products, including gelatine.

We use the EVU V symbol on most of our flavours as the ingredients are made in our Dutch factory, using milk from our Caring Dairy and free range eggs.

However five of our flavours contain brownies/chocolate baked goods that are sourced from the US. US suppliers use eggs that are US Vegetarian Society approved, from certified ‘cage-free chickens’. But as the EUV [sic] does not recognise this US standard (rather, they recognise free range egg certification), we have not put the EUV V symbol on the packs of these flavours.

Your point about the vegetarian product list on the Unilever website is a fair one. Legally we can say that all our products are suitable for vegetarians, but the main reason these five products are not listed on the website is simply because Unilever doesn't want people to mistake 'vegetarian approved' with 'EUV' approved, as in this case they are different.

The fact is using two different definitions of the same word to market products is confusing. Unilever use the EVU symbol where they can, but can then ignore that standard and class everything else as vegetarian, too - even if they then label products on their own documents as "unsuitable for a vegetarian diet".

Ultimately, if you're a vegetarian who wants to scoff a tub of Ben & Jerry's Cookie Dough Ice Cream in one sitting, you have to decide whether the EVU is correct to consider "cage-free" chickens as unsuitable for vegetarian diets. What does "cage-free" actually mean? According to the Humane Society of the United States:

Because of public opposition to battery cage confinement, many egg producers are switching to cage-free systems. While these systems generally offer hens a higher level of animal welfare than do battery cage systems, the mere absence of cages doesn't necessarily ensure a high level of welfare.

  • Cage-free farms typically buy their hens from the same hatcheries that supply battery-cage farms. These hatcheries kill the male chicks upon hatching—more than 200 million each year in the United States alone.
  • Most cage-free hens have part of their beaks burned off, a painful mutilation.
  • Hens are typically slaughtered at less than two years old, far less than half their normal lifespan. They are often transported long distances to slaughter plants with no food or water.
  • While the vast majority of the battery and cage-free egg industry no longer uses starvation to force molt the birds, there are battery and cage-free producers alike who still use this practice.

So, while cage-free does not mean cruelty-free, cage-free hens generally have better lives than those confined in battery cages.

There we are. Unilever claims their own products are unsuitable for vegetarians on one hand and suitable on the other. They base this on the fact that some products are suitable the US, but unsuitable if you ask the EVU. Got it? Good.

31 comments

  • Junkyard
    Wow. And there was me thinking that vegetarians were people who didn't eat meat.
  • Larry L.
    I think it's always been the case that vegetarians have to make a substantial number of non-obvious micro-decisions about exactly what it is they don't eat. For religiously-derived vegetarianism, the appropriate religious authorities typically provide help with this, but for those doing it for fun - well, how on earth does one decide if real ale (generally made with (but not still containing) finings made from the swim bladders of fish) is OK or not? What about cheese (generally made with rennet made from the stomachs of calves)?
  • Shooter M.
    "Micro-decisions"? Give me a fucking break. And a bacon sandwich.
  • Rob
    I think the woman from wii fit is a vegetarian. I'll ask her.
  • BingoB
    My Veggie wife ordered a veg deli from McDonalds, they gave her a chicken one labelled as veg deli, not knowing any better she bit into it then realised they had fucked up. Could she sue?
  • Mark C.
    Vegetarian bacon is made from soy and hate.
  • Rob
    Oh no, a mouthful of dangerous, chicken. You're lucky she survived. I once ordered diet coke and got full fat coke. Perhaps I should sue too?
  • Junkyard
    Quite so Larry, but in both of the situations you mentioned, parts of an animal are used in the product. Eggs are not generally considered to be part of an animal (despite the obvious objections to such a stance). Besides, an egg either is or isn't an animal - the way it's Mum was treated is neither here nor there. Don't get me wrong, I fully support animal welfare, and us non-veggies have to make "micro-decisions" about what we will and won't eat too. But you don't often see a "vegetarian" tucking into a nice juicy T-bone steak, then justifying it by stating that the cow was fully organic and lived in a lovely meadow all its life.
  • Junkyard
    Rob - don't fret, I don't think Coke actually has any fat in it (I could be wrong about McD's coke mind you).
  • Hack
    Vegeterians make me sick. I should stop eating them.
  • raggedy
    Hey Rob, I bet you'd have no objections if you met some girl in a bar and she turned out to be a guy then? LOL
  • Rolly
    I saw a documentary about the milk used in many products in the USA that contain rBGH (Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone). I'm more worried about that than I am about whether they're technically veggie or not. Its where they give the cows hormones and they produce more milk, but usually they're really sickly animals and the milk contains puss and blood.... lovely. Mmmm mmmmmmm. Just gonna yum that puss up! Gahhhh...
  • Rolly
    PS - this is banned in the UK, but we still allow the USA to import milk from rBGH treated cows. Weird stuff!
  • Ryan
    Being against poor treatment of animals isn't anything to do with being a veggie. I'm a meat eater, but I only want to eat meat from an animal which has been treated with respect... and I don't see any labels which assure that..
  • Gary
    There is no single legal UK/EU definition of the word "vegetarian", which is why products are emblazoned with an array of "V" symbols, leaf-like logos etc alongside the claim "suitable for vegetarians". It is illegal to make a false or misleading claim, but since there is no universal binding standard there is opportunity for companies to pick & choose choose whatever definition is convenient.
  • Junkyard
    Ryan - while there's no specific label to guarantee well-treated animals, organic meat is a pretty close thing. In addition, you can be sure you're not eating meat laced with hormones and antibiotics too, which is always nice.
  • Brian
    Brian here, my mother says this is on offer (Ben & Jerry’s) for £1.99 at TESCO, so i will buy some.
  • -]
    You CANNOT be sure that meat (or vegetables) is/are not laced with growth hormone, antibiotics, pesticides or synthetic fertilisers. What the current soil association organic UKx certification guarantees is that animals/vegetables are not routinely treated with such things as a matter of course. They are still allowed on an as-"needed" basis. The 2092/91 Organic Regulations also allows for exclusions - upto 5% of total ingredients in processed foods can be from non-organic sources and still be labelled organic. Biodynamic agriculture is more stringent, but still not perfect. Organic also doesn't guarantee GM free - because of cross-pollination if a product is to be labelled GMO free it must undergo regular testing. This is most prevalent in Soya, Corn (Maize) and Rice production - simply because of the massive amounts of GMO stock. Eating good quality food isn't a simple matter, but then most people are happy with substandard supermarket fodder.
  • bwah h.
    Who cares. It tastes gggggggooooooooodddddddddddddd.
  • The B.
    Hi, Brian here. No, the real one. I knew a well treated animal once. And it treated me to a lovely leather jacket. What a kind creature it was.
  • Brians M.
    Hi, the Mother of Brian here. What Brian isn't telling you is that he enjoyed "relations" with that animal before he stole it's skin.
  • Brian's D.
    Brian's mum is an imposter. No wife of mine would misuse an apostrophe.
  • Brians's N.
    That isn't really Brian's dad, for he died in the war.
  • Brian
    I think you guys (or chicks), are *trying* to make a funny out of me. The REAL BRIAN!!!
  • Brain
    Say What
  • Bitterwallet B.
    [...] here you go – the Evening Standard covering our story about Ben & Jerry’s confusing themselves over whether their ice cream is vegetarian or not. Now go to the pub, will you? It’s what Jesus would [...]
  • Brians t.
    shut up brian...!!!
  • fakeybrute
    sorry, processed foods are NOT vegetarian.. 'nuff said.. many fakey veggie heads out there think, if they don't see it.. then it must NOT be there.. heh, no wonder i'm sick of vegans and vegetarians.. makes folks like me look like fools.. i don't even speak of my diet choice any more.. i just tell them.. "i eat raw veggies/fruits, is that good enough for yah?" there.
  • Brians S.
    Hey, Brian, don't be mean to people! And hey, nanna, we're comming over for christmas.
  • PJ
    Fo the simple folk: Vegetarian means: person who does not eat meat (this includes fish as well as other meat) o things that are a direct result of slaughter (such as gelatine). Vegetarian does NOT mean: - person who eats no processed foods - person who eats no animal poducts whatsoever - person who eats no foods that harm the environment - person who eats no meat except fish (that's a pescetarian) - no cruelty whatsoever (as vegans know, even free range eggs involve cruelty, such as beak searing and poor conditions - the "access" to the outside environment can be a hole big enough for just one hen, which they fight over) - person who eats no meat substitutes If you want to live a cruelty-free life, become a vegan - the natural beginning and end of VEGetariAN, as envistioned many decades ago. If you want to live a slightly less cruel life, be a vegetarian.
  • Pam
    I agree with PJ

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