December 3rd, 2009

Does My Bomb Look Big In This?

Ben & Jerry's Opens in Manly

The Big Scoop
Author: Jackie McMillan
Posted: Wednesday, 2 December 2009
Published: The City Hub
Last Saturday I joined a smaller-than-expected queue outside Australia’s first Ben & Jerry’s for their ‘12-Hour Scoop-A-Thon’. Surrounded by fake cows and eager families, I felt conflicted; we had to decide on a flavour before entering the store. I chose Phish Food on the advice of an experienced consumer: “You’ve got to be careful; the ones that sound really good are too rich.

One super-sweet scoop later, the horizon disappeared as a haze descended on Manly. The queue had mostly dissipated. With the temperature already in the high twenties, most people seemed more interested in swimming. Flyer-wielding Ben & Jerry’s staff did their best – peace, love and free ice-cream for all.

Catharine Munro wrote in SMH’s Good Living: “Ben & Jerry’s feel-good flavour has come to our shores.” She’s not the only one touting the feel-good vibe. A Current Affair’s Kirstine Lumb was also on the bandwagon: “It really is the ultimate guilt-free ice-cream isn’t it?

Am I only the one who finds transporting ice cream across the Pacific ludicrous? We make it here. Sure I’m chuffed they’re offsetting their (massive) carbon footprint, but perhaps they could try not making one in the first place? Of course it’s just for a few years while the actual owners of Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever, assess the worth of establishing regional headquarters.

That’s right folks, the feel-good founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were bought out nearly ten years ago. These days they’re more like mascots, trotted out to cut a ribbon and announce the new ‘Australian’ flavour name – Peanut Cookie-Burra Dough. So let’s talk about Unilever instead.

Nick Ray is part of the Ethical Consumer Group; they make a booklet designed to assist Australian consumers make more sustainable purchasing choices. In their guide Nick says: “Unilever receive a cross due to criticisms related to animal testing.” Their Australasian products are not tested on animals but they are a global company, and “the European Union has this year just phased out all testing… on animals… It began the process in 2003.” Nick points out, we’re talking about one of the world’s largest corporations with “annual sales of approximately $54.4 billion in 2004” and an equally “huge responsibility to be leaders” when many smaller companies have managed to phase out animal testing entirely!

The Ben & Jerry’s ingredient list also poses a few problems for the ethical consumer. First there’s high-fructose corn syrup, the dominant U.S. sweetener. University of Florida researchers have linked it to obesity. There are healthier and greener alternatives; sugar is better for you.

There’s also palm oil, linked to rainforest destruction, climate change and the likely extinction of Orang-utans within twenty years. The Palm Oil Action Group are fighting for compulsory labelling so we can make informed decisions, but as Greenpeace’s Sue Connor warns, the palm oil industry is already out of control: “There’s no way for the end user to know whether the oil comes from destructive sources or not… None of the oil is segregated by traders.


In a small Leichhardt premises Pat & Stick’s are a two-man operation turning out excellent ice-cream sandwiches. I liked their Expresso Lace better than my scoop of Ben & Jerry’s; it’s made with sugar. Pat handed me a well-thumbed book: “We started off reading Ben and Jerry’s story… They just wanted to make something that everyone enjoyed. They did it for a lot of years. They’re inspirational.” Imagine how he felt when one of his stockists was asked by Unilever representatives to replace their Pat and Stick’s freezer with a Ben & Jerry’s one.

Back in the day, the Ben and Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream and Dessert Book explains that they too were the victim of nasty corporate tactics, “we knew a little company with twenty-three employees could not hold its own against a company with annual sales of four billion dollars…” They rallied behind: ‘What’s the Doughboy Afraid Of?’


Now the shoe’s on the other foot. The founders were recently spotted taking notes in Gelato Messina, home of Sydney’s best gelato (according to the 2009 SMH’s Foodies’ Guide). Are Ben & Jerry’s afraid of Nick Palumbo? I hear his new Pecan Pie flavour is outrageously good! Nick says: “While Ben & Jerry’s is undoubtedly king of the mass market ice-cream world, ultimately it is still a mass produced product made by machines in an automated factory… My product is boutique – all handmade, every day, tub by tub… using fresh produce purchased from local producers.

Underneath the mainstream media’s feel-good ‘hippy capitalist’ stories, I found a buyout that has (at best) diluted the core ethical practices that Ben & Jerry’s began with. They’re a corporate giant using ingredients that don’t feel good.

Ben and Jerrys on Urbanspoon