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Amid animal welfare lawsuits, Ben & Jerry's axes 'happy cows' product packaging

The company has been updating its pints and marketing materials.
/ Source: TODAY

Ben & Jerry's is giving its pints a makeover amid two separate lawsuits that allege the company's product packaging and marketing are "misleading" to consumers. Now, the Vermont-based creamery will no longer claim that its ice cream comes from "happy cows," a phrase it started using two years ago.

Since its founding in 1978, Ben & Jerry's has touted its progressive environmental and animal welfare practices. The brand's Caring Dairy program, created 35 years ago, works with and pays local Vermont farmers to adopt more sustainable farming practices and enable them to provide better care for their dairy cows.

But all of the milk that goes into making pints of Ben & Jerry's doesn't just come from farms that participate in Caring Dairy. Now animal rights' activists want the creamery to be more transparent about its sourcing practices.

Customers and consumer advocates argue that real dairy cows are not as "happy" as Ben & Jerry's says they are.
Customers and consumer advocates argue that real dairy cows are not as "happy" as Ben & Jerry's says they are.Ben and Jerry's

As the welfare of animals raised for meat and dairy becomes more and more important to consumers, companies which claim to have higher standards are under increasing scrutiny.

In 2019, Fairlife, a dairy company with a name that conveys its cattle are supposedly treated fairly, received nationwide backlash after a viral video showed calf and cow abuse taking place at one of its largest farms.

Regarding the ethical treatment of animals, federal regulations and labels can be challenging to understand. Without legal humane or organic certifications, mechanized dairy operations that supply Ben & Jerry's with milk are a stark contrast to cows grazing on a grassy knoll, imagery which the company frequently employs to market its products.

Ben & Jerry's cow, a female named Woody, will remain on all its packaging even though the phrase "happy cows" will not.
Ben & Jerry's cow, a female named Woody, will remain on all its packaging even though the phrase "happy cows" will not.Ben & Jerry's

Ben & Jerry's updates to its product packaging and marketing materials comes amid two similar lawsuits being brought against the company.

In October 2019, James Ehlers, an environmental advocate and former gubernatorial candidate for Vermont, filed a complaint against Ben & Jerry's and its parent company, Unilever.

"During the past several years, Unilever has breached consumer trust by representing the Ben & Jerry's Products as being made with milk and cream sourced exclusively from 'happy cows' on Vermont dairies that participate in a special, humane 'Caring Dairy' program," reads Ehler's complaint in the class-action suit, which was sent to TODAY. "Only a minority percentage of the milk and cream in the products actually is sourced from these 'happy cows' on 'Caring Dairy' farms."

A different lawsuit, filed in Washington D.C. in July 2018 by the Organic Consumers Association, took the same issues with Ben & Jerry's "happy cows" labeling.

Ben & Jerry's legal team filed motions to dismiss both suits and justified that customers, like Ehlers, who buy their ice cream on the principle that they're still supporting the company's Caring Dairy practices, get "exactly what they paid for."

"While we haven’t done an official survey of our cows’ happiness, we’re proud of the work we’ve done with Vermont’s family farmers over the past 35 years, and we believe our Caring Dairy program is the most progressive in the industry. We’re committed to building a resilient, regenerative dairy supply that benefits animals, people, and the planet," a spokesperson for Ben & Jerry's told TODAY via email.

Though neither of the lawsuits have been dismissed, the company has already begun phasing out the phrase "happy cows" on all of its ice cream pints, a redesign process that Ben & Jerry's says it started in 2019, before Ehler's suit was filed.

As for the cartoon cow featured on pints who is sometimes seen strumming a guitar, wearing a playful apron or even indulging in ice cream?

"The cow on our packaging and on our website is affectionately known as Woody, named after the original artist, Woody Jackson. She has no expression, and no eyes," the company spokesperson said. "Woody, of course, is a SHE (!) and we don’t have any plans to replace her. Sometimes our designers give her accessories."

It's clear that happy cow isn't going anywhere.