Ben & Jerry's drops egg supplier accused of mistreating hens

Frederic J. Frommer
Associated Press
August 23, 2006

WASHINGTON - Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. said Wednesday it will drop a Minnesota egg supplier accused of mistreating chickens, responding to pressure from the Humane Society of the United States.

The premium ice cream maker's CEO, Walt Freese, said in a telephone interview that dropping Michael Foods Inc., of Minnetonka, Minn., "seemed like the right thing to do." He said the change would be effective next week.

The Humane Society said that an investigation of a Michael Foods egg farm in June found hens dying of starvation, live hens living among dead ones and sick or injured birds caught in cage wires.

The animal welfare group recently launched a campaign dubbed "A Scoop of Lies: Ben & Jerry's and Factory Farm Cruelty," calling on Ben & Jerry's to stop using the supplier and other eggs raised in battery cages.

Freese wouldn't commit to buying only cage-free eggs.

"We're really evaluating our options," he said. "We have a lot of respect for the Humane Society and their point of view."

But the Humane Society's president, Wayne Pacelle, said his group would be satisfied with nothing less than a switch to cage-free eggs.

"We don't want Ben & Jerry's to simply shift to another battery cage operation," he said.

Founded in 1978 by entrepreneurs Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, Vermont-based Ben & Jerry's mission includes "a continued commitment to incorporating wholesome, natural ingredients and promoting business practices that respect the Earth and the Environment," its Web site says. It was bought by the Dutch conglomerate Unilever in 2000.

Freese said that the main problem with Michael Foods was that not all of their eggs were raised in compliance with guidelines established by the United Egg Producers.

"That's important to us because we're committed to the humane treatment of all animals that are involved in the production of ingredients for Ben & Jerry's," he said.

But the Humane Society considers the United Egg Producers guidelines woefully inadequate - saying they still permit hens to be confined in small battery cages that provide little room for the birds to move.

Michael Foods said this week it planned to switch to larger cages to meet or exceed United Egg Producer guidelines for hen welfare. The company had no immediate comment Wednesday.

Freese said the decision to drop Michael Foods was made in response to discussions it's had with the Humane Society that started "some time ago."

Also Wednesday, Ben & Jerry's issued a statement out of London saying it uses free-range eggs in its European ice cream production.

"We made the decision in Europe first, because free-range eggs are more readily available, and at a more affordable cost," Freese said.

Freese said the company has received phone calls and e-mails from consumers about the issue.

While he didn't have exact numbers, Freese said, "It's enough to let us know that there a number of consumers out there who are concerned about how our eggs are sourced, and we respect that concern."

According to the Humane Society, food companies such as Whole Foods Market Inc. and Wild Oats have agreed to sell only eggs from cage-free hens, and Trader Joe's has started selling its own brand of eggs fromever hens that are not in cages.