Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Contains Traces of Controversial Herbicide

CC BY 2.0. Magnus D -- Enjoying Ben & Jerry's ice cream on a summer day

Ice cream lovers aren't happy to learn they're licking glyphosate on hot summer days.

Ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s is a company accustomed to making headlines for good reasons, such as switching all its sugar, cocoa, vanilla, coffee, and bananas to Fairtrade-certified sources and handing out free scoops from the back of an ice cream-themed Tesla. The latest headline, however, is a departure from the norm and a PR disaster for the company.

Traces of glyphosate, the most widely-used pesticide in the world and a main ingredient in Monsanto’s notorious RoundUp, have been found in 10 out of 11 samples of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. It’s not a lot, only about 1.74 parts per billion in the highest-measuring Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream.

“A 75-pound child would have to consume 145,000 eight-ounce servings a day to hit the limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency [and] an adult would have to eat 290,000 servings to hit the agency’s cutoff,” says the New York Times.

The EPA’s safe limit, however, has been brought into question recently, with an updated conclusion from the World Health Organization’s Agency for Research on Cancer stating this year that glyphosate “probably” could cause some cancers.

Researchers worry that exposure even to small amounts of glyphosate can have a negative impact on the body. When lab rats eat the equivalent of a daily child-sized portion of ice cream, they showed early signs of fatty liver disease within three months and it worsened over time.

Interestingly, the government does not and never has tested for glyphosate. It conducts routine tests on all other kinds of pesticides in food, but glyphosate has always been excluded from the tests. From the Times:

“Megan McSeveney, a spokeswoman for the [Food and Drug Administration], said the methods used in its annual tests cannot detect glyphosate because of its chemical makeup and how it degrades. Available methods of testing, she added, are costly and labor intensive. In 2014, after the Government Accountability Office sharply criticized the agency for failing to test for glyphosate — and also for not disclosing that fact to the public — the Food and Drug Administration said it would cost about $5 million to start such testing.”

Various environmental and consumer advocacy groups have taken matters into their own hands, conducting private tests. The Organic Consumers Association is one such group, leading the charge against Ben & Jerry’s.

Its press release states: "OCA is calling for Ben & Jerry's, a Vermont-based subsidiary of Unilever, to begin an immediate transition to using only organic ingredients, including milk, in its products or face a national and international consumer boycott."

Ben & Jerry's director of social mission, Ron Michalak, says the company works hard to source GMO-free ingredients and that none of its plant-based ingredients come from genetically engineered crops where glyphosate is commonly used. Most likely, the traces come from added-in, pre-made ingredients such as peanut butter, cookie dough, or brownies. Michalak said:

“We’re working to transition away from GMO, as far away as we can get. But then these tests come along, and we need to better understand where the glyphosate they’re finding is coming from. Maybe it’s from something that’s not even in our supply chain, and so we’re missing it.”

While the Times acknowledges that part of the OCA’s motives are rooted in its desire to get the company to go organic, it’s also true that people are becoming increasingly wary and uncomfortable about the presence of chemicals in their food supply. One commenter left a thought-provoking reply:

“As a biologist and toxicologist I continue to be astonished at the collective shrug with which many people and government regulators respond to news about artificial chemical contamination of our environment and, not incidentally, our food supply. Biodiversity is crashing at what may be an irreversible and is certainly an alarming rate – the biodiversity that sustains our agriculture from pollinators to soil microorganisms. If you don't care what’s in your and your children’s food, it might be time to at least consider that your food supply depends on non-human organisms we are killing off or severely harming with intentionally applied pesticides and chemical pollutants from our industries, farms, and cities.”

It’s not a big stretch to imagine Ben & Jerry’s going organic; in fact, it seems like a natural extension of the company's already impressive environmental and ethical ethos. Perhaps this news will tip them in that direction, once and for all. And, for the record, the only ice cream that did not have traces of glyphosate was Cherry Garcia, so you can continue to indulge!