On busy summer weekends at the Ben and Jerry's Factory in Waterbury, crowded tours leave every 10 minutes. Tourists from all over the world laugh at the peppy video explaining the origins of the quirky ice cream company and groan at the tour guides' bad cow puns. After the tour of the factory floor, they wander up to the "Flavor Graveyard," where combinations that didn't make the cut are put to rest under the shade of big trees. Each "gravestone" eulogizes the flavor-gone-by.
One recently deceased flavor has yet to be memorialized: Coffee Heath Bar Crunch, one of the company's best sellers. In its place you'll find something called "Coffee Toffee Bar Crunch." Ben and Jerry's CEO Jostein Solheim grimaces when asked about the online backlash over the change. "We've had a lot of praise and we've had some people who sort of feel a little challenged by that choice." That's putting it mildly. Fan forums have blasted the company, saying the flavor just doesn't taste the same and threatening never to buy another pint.
Solheim said the company had to remove the key ingredient, necessitating a reworking of the flavor. Heath Bars are made by Hershey. And Hershey makes Heath Bars with genetically engineered ingredients. Ben and Jerry's has made a pledge to remove all GMO ingredients from its ice cream.
The company has taken a vocal stand in recent years in support of states looking at legislation that would require manufacturers to disclose food that is made with genetic engineering. Vermont recently passed a law that will require labeling starting in 2015. Ben and Jerry's founder Jerry Greenfield recently launched a campaign to help fill the coffers of Vermont's crowd-sourced defense fund set up to combat lawsuits over its labeling law.
The news that Ben and Jerry's is taking a vocal stand on a controversial issue won't come as a surprise to many people. It's kind of the brand's calling card. But some other mainstream companies are carefully—and much more quietly—calibrating their non-GMO strategies.
Original plain Cheerios are now GMO-free. They're made by General Mills. But the only announcement was in a company blog post from January. And you won't see any label on the box highlighting the change. Grape Nuts, another cereal aisle staple, made by Post, are also non-GMO. And Target has about 80 of its own brand items certified GMO-free.
Megan Westgate runs the Non-GMO Project, which acts as an independent third-party verifier of GMO-free products, including Target's. She says her organization knows about "a lot of exciting cool things that are happening that for whatever strategic reasons get kept pretty quiet." The Non-GMO Project has certified more than 20,000 products since it launched in 2007 and Westgate says this is one of the fastest growing sectors of the natural food industry, representing $6 billion dollars in annual sales. But just because they're testing the water doesn't mean most mainstream companies are ready to start publicizing their changes.
Nathan Hendricks, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University, says big food producers are trying to gauge what direction consumers are headed in. "Ultimately," he says, "these big companies aren't just friends with Monsanto or something, they want to make a profit and they want to be able to do what's going to make them money." So they'd better have a product line in the works if consumer sentiment starts to shift more heavily towards GMO-free food.
But even as they create GMO-free products, many of these corporations are fighting state initiatives that would require them to give consumers more information about their ingredients.
They often fight those battles through the powerful GMA, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group with hundreds of members. It has just filed suit against Vermont over the state's GMO labeling law.
Even Ben and Jerry's, so vocal in its anti-GMO stance, has a conflict, of sorts. It may have eliminated GMOs, but it's still owned by Unilever, which put a lot of money towards fighting labeling in California and belongs to the GMA. That might make things sticky for Ben and Jerry's CEO Jostein Solheim. But he equivocates. "You know," he shrugs, "in big companies a lot of things happen behind closed doors. I think we'll leave that conversation behind closed doors." But Solheim says a unique agreement between the ice cream maker and Unilever allows Ben and Jerry's to continue its social mission independent of its parent's choices.
One reason these large companies might be quietly working to make GMO-free food now is because finding ingredients can be a major challenge. Take just two ingredients: more than 90 percent of all the soybeans and corn grown in the United States are genetically engineered. To ensure non-GMO ingredients, the supply chain has to remain separate and pristine. Crops need to be grown far enough away from genetically engineered seeds to prevent cross-contamination. Harvesting equipment needs to be either used only for non-GMO crops or cleaned extensively before switching. The same is true for processing and manufacturing facilities and transport receptacles like shipping containers.
That's why Megan Westgate says a natural foods brand like Kashi, owned by Kellog's, is transitioning more slowly than many fans would like. She points out that Kashi told consumers it would take a couple of years to switch over all of its ingredients. It's a matter of changing contracts with growers, finding farmland where non-GMOs can be grown successfully, and reworking recipes so the flavors that customers have grown used to aren't drastically changed, like what has happened with Ben and Jerry's new toffee.
Right now, non-GMO food fetches a premium. Purdue University agricultural economist Chris Hurt says that premium is likely to come down if this part of the agricultural sector gains more traction and an efficiency of scale can kick in.
Ultimately, the consumer is king. And the question of whether or not consumers will want non-GMO products is still up in the air. At the Ben and Jerry's Factory in Vermont, most tourists seem more interested in getting their free sample than hearing about the brand's stand on genetic engineering. Still, manufacturers are clearly wondering what might happen if more states enact labeling laws and if consumer sentiment begins to shift. So they're hedging their bets: fighting state-by-state labeling initiatives, but quietly introducing their own GMO-free products in the meantime.
This story originally appeared on NPR's The Salt.