ST. ALBANS, Vt. -- A Ben & Jerry's factory worker feeds chunks of chocolate-covered toffee into an augur, which funnels them into a stream of coffee-flavored ice cream. The newly blended confection is then dolloped into pint containers labeled "Coffee Toffee Bar Crunch."
What's rolling off the production line in St. Albans is an old flavor with a new name and new ingredients as the iconic ice-cream maker transforms all of its 50 flavors to non-genetically modified ingredients and Fair Trade certification.
"It's no longer Heath bar," notes Ben & Jerry's spokeswoman Kelly Mohr of the coffee crunch motoring through the automated assembly line in front of her.
The Heath Toffee Bar that was once a central ingredient of the popular "Coffee Heath Bar Crunch" had to go. To meet the non-GMO and Fair Trade standards, Ben & Jerry's had to find new sources for some 110 ingredients that go into the chunky, funky flavors, no small change for a company that throws "Everything but the…" into its ice cream.
"We felt like this was something Ben & Jerry's ought to be a leader on," said Chris Miller, Ben & Jerry's social mission activism manager.
As Vermont's new law requiring labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms shows, interest in GMOs, or the lack of them, is hot. A growing number of image-conscious companies are looking to go non-GMO.
Genetically modified organisms are plants or animals whose makeup has been altered to produce a new combination of genes and traits that nature is unable to produce. The process is commonly used in corn, soybeans and cotton to make them resistant to herbicides or cause them to produce pesticides. Some people fear GMOs pose a danger to humans and the environment, while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration maintains genetically modified products are materially no different.
For Ben & Jerry's, the non-GMO changeover comes with some risk. Committed consumers of flavors containing Heath Bar Crunch have spewed negative comments in online forums over alterations to their favorite flavors.
The move, however, puts Ben & Jerry's back in the good graces of a growing GMO-opposition movement, which now sees the quirky ice cream maker as a leading supporter. Just two years ago, Ben & Jerry's owner Unilever spent more than $450,000 to try to defeat the California GMO labeling ballot initiative, and Ben & Jerry's took heat for it from GMO opponents. Less than a year later, Ben & Jerry's announced plans to go non-GMO.
"I would say they're definitely on the cutting edge," said Ken Roseboro, editor/publisher of the national Non-GMO Sourcebook, a manual that helps food producers find GMO-free ingredients.
Ben & Jerry's move is already helping to affect the supply of non-genetically modified ingredients, Roseboro said, as an Oregon cherry producer that supplies ingredients for Cherry Garcia switched from genetically modified beet sugar to cane sugar to retain Ben & Jerry's as a customer.
Ben & Jerry's was also a leading supporter as Vermont legislators this year passed a law that could make the state the first in the nation to require labeling of genetically modified foods. Miller, the company's social mission guru, was recently in Oregon to help strategize with the pro-labeling movement there and conducted a workshop in Vermont to help other companies interested in sourcing non-GMO ingredients. Ben & Jerry's is slated to unveil a new flavor at a Burlington rally Monday to support the state's fund to fight a lawsuit filed last week against the law.
Despite those efforts, some opponents of GMOs argue consumers should boycott Ben & Jerry's. Unilever, the multinational food company that bought Ben & Jerry's from Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield in 2000, is a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the group that last week sued Vermont over the GMO labeling law. The Organic Consumers Association called for a boycott of all GMA members over the lawsuit.
Will Allen is the manager of Cedar Circle Farm in Thetford, a policy board member with the Organic Consumers Association and a founder of Vermont's Right to Know Coalition that pushed for the labeling law, with help from Ben & Jerry's. He said he would boycott Ben & Jerry's, even as he called Ben & Jerry's a "significant contributor" to the Vermont labeling effort.
"I want them to do more," Allen said. "I think they have the opportunity to be heroic."
Dave Rogers, who recently retired as policy adviser with the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont and worked with Allen in the push for Vermont's labeling law, disagrees.
Of Ben & Jerry's, he said, "I give them credit for going to Unilever and saying, 'If you care about this product, you'll let us do this.' I don't put Ben & Jerry's and Unilever in the same box."
Ben & Jerry's is about 40 percent of the way, or through 14 of its more popular flavors, toward the goal of transforming all flavors to non-GMO ingredients and Fair Trade certification. The company expects to reach the goal by the end of the year. Among the flavors that have yet to make the transition: Half Baked and Chocolate Fudge Brownie, said David Fitzgerald, front line manager at the St. Albans factory.
Common ingredients such as sugar and corn syrup are most commonly available in genetically modified forms. To meet Fair Trade certification requirements, sugar, cocoa, coffee, vanilla and bananas have to come from farmers who receive a fair price, pay fair wages and offer good working conditions.
For Ben & Jerry's, going non-GMO is about the bits of candy and cookies that the company tosses into its ice cream, rather than the ice cream itself. By the standards laid out in the new Vermont labeling law and those used in Europe, dairy foods are considered unaffected by GMOs. Though most of the cows making the cream eat genetically modified corn, Ben & Jerry's argues that it's the corn they eat, rather than the cows or the milk they produce, that are genetically modified.
However, the Non-GMO Project, an organization that verifies and offers its non-GMO seal of approval to products proven to be without GMOs, requires dairy and meat to come from animals fed non-GMO feed to earn its verification.
Miller said with 90 percent of feed corn genetically modified in the United States, Ben & Jerry's would have difficulty sourcing its ice cream that way.
Miller said the company has been able to make the switch to non-GMO and Fair Trade certified without having to discontinue any flavors.
Roseboro, the Non-GMO Sourcebook publisher, said sourcing non-genetically modified ingredients can be a challenge but will become easier and cheaper as more food manufacturers seek the ingredients and the market grows. Ingredients are more readily available in Europe, where GMO labeling is mandatory, he said. Non-genetically modified ingredients tend to cost 25 to 50 percent more, he said.
Ben & Jerry's has no plans to raise prices as a result of the transition, Miller said, though he noted milk prices are currently high and frequently volatile.
Tidy pints chug along the conveyor belt at Ben & Jerry's St. Albans factory, where the majority of the company's ice cream — 4 million gallons a year — are made (factories in Waterbury, Nev., the Netherlands and Israel make the rest). Each pint advertises the changeover.
"We source non-GMO ingredients," the lid notes just above a Fair Trade certification icon.
The Coffee Toffee Bar Crunch required a new toffee for a combination of reasons to meet the two goals, Miller said. Heath Toffee Bars, made by Hershey, contain soy lecithin and corn syrup. Both products are most commonly made with genetically modified corn and soy.
Miller said he likes the new toffee better. A long string of consumers disagree.
Many who posted comments on a Coffee Heath Bar Crunch Facebook page, which is unconnected with the company, pleaded for the return of the old flavor. The only thanks came from people glad they'll have an easier time sticking to their diet because they are unable to eat the new version, which one commenter described as dry and bitter.
"We have heard the complaints loud and clear and realize changes need to be made," Mohr, the Ben & Jerry's spokeswoman, said. "Our fans' feedback is incredibly important to us and as a result our flavor gurus are hard at work to make the adjustments to the new piece."