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