Ben & Jerry's sours on Minnesota egg supplier

  • Article by: MATT MCKINNEY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 23, 2006 - 10:15 PM

An animal welfare campaign scored a major hit Wednesday when it pressured Ben & Jerry's Homemade, makers of Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia ice cream, to dump a Minnesota egg producer accused of mistreating its chickens.

The campaign by the Humane Society of the United States became an embarrassment for Ben & Jerry's when a news report surfaced this week that the company bought the eggs for its ice cream and frozen yogurt -- about 2 million pounds a year -- from Michael Foods Inc.

Michael Foods became a Humane Society target over animal welfare violations sparked by a video taken inside a Michael Foods plant.

A day after the story appeared, Ben & Jerry's CEO, Walt Freese, told the Associated Press that dropping Michael Foods "seemed like the right thing to do."

A spokesman for Michael Foods said late Wednesday that the company had no comment.

The undercover video, shot last winter in Wakefield, Neb., shows dead and dying chickens stuck in cages. Some of the images show small cages shared by seven or more birds. A narrator says birds died of starvation and thirst. The images have become the centerpiece of the campaign to stop an industry practice of using "battery caged" hens for egg production.

The campaign has focused on Michael Foods, saying the company does not follow voluntary guidelines issued by an industry group, United Egg Producers, that require 67 square inches of space for each bird. That's about two-thirds the space covered by a standard sheet of paper. "Michael Foods doesn't even follow these extremely modest guidelines," said Paul Shapiro, a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States.

A Michael Foods spokesman told the Associated Press that the company plans to give more space to its chickens that will exceed the guidelines, which Shapiro said was a small step in the right direction.

"They should do the right thing and end confinement of birds in battery cages," he said.

No one at Ben & Jerry's had given much thought to where the eggs came from before learning of the cage-free campaign, said Sean Greenwood, a spokesman for Ben & Jerry's.

"We're not chicken experts; we're ice cream experts," he said.

The ice cream company, founded in 1978 by childhood friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, has long billed itself as a progressive organization concerned with issues far beyond the nation's sweet tooth.

A statement on its website says Ben & Jerry's "seeks to meet human needs and eliminate injustices," adding that the company's focus includes sustainable agriculture on family farms.

The company was sold for $326 million in August 2000 to the Dutch conglomerate Unilever.

The ice cream company was only the latest to succumb to pressure from the Humane Society over caged hens. Whole Foods, Wild Oats, Trader Joe's and several university food service companies have also signed on to the campaign.

Michael Foods sells eggs to industry buyers and under its own retail labels of Better'n Eggs, Crystal Farms, Simply Potatoes and Diner's Choice.

The company is one of the nation's largest wholesalers of egg products. Its eggs turn up in a range of products including Twinkies and Hellmann's mayonnaise.

The public relations blow delivered Wednesday comes at a bad time for Michael Foods. Not only has the company struggled lately -- reporting a 40 percent drop in profits in its first quarter this year -- but rumors of an impending sale have shown up in the industry press this month.

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