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Judge Tosses 'Happy Cow' Suit Against Ben & Jerry's

A Ben & Jerry's sign with a red "closed" tile on it.
Amy Kolb Noyes
VPR File
Ben & Jerry's makes ice cream at its plant in Waterbury. The major tourist attaction is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the meantime, a federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit alleging the ice cream company misleads consumers about its cows.

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit that alleged Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. misleads consumers with claims that its farms protect the environment and keep their cows contented.

Clean water activist James Ehlersfiled the suit in October. He took aim at Ben & Jerry's marketing of its social mission. The suit alleged that the company falsely claims all its cream comes from "happy" cows raised on farms enrolled in the Caring Dairy program that pays a premium if farms follow strong environmental and animal welfare standards.

Instead, the suit charged, much of the milk is sourced from industrial-scale farms where cows are confined and treated with antibiotics. The suit said milk from the Caring Dairy farms is mixed with milk from conventional farms at the St. Albans Creamery.

U.S. District Judge Christina Reiss dismissed each of Ehlers' claims. She said Ben & Jerry's, owned by the multinational firm Unilever, did not claim that all its milk comes from farms enrolled in Caring Dairy.

"Plaintiff [Ehlers] cannot point to an actual misrepresentation, but instead relies exclusively on his interpretation of a phrase he characterizes as conveying the impression that all Ben & Jerry's products are 'sourced exclusively' from 'Caring Dairies.'" ?— U.S. District Judge Christina Reiss

“Plaintiff [Ehlers] cannot point to an actual misrepresentation, but instead relies exclusively on his interpretation of a phrase he characterizes as conveying the impression that all Ben & Jerry’s products are ‘sourced exclusively’ from ‘Caring Dairies,’” the judge wrote.

Reiss also noted that Ehlers lacked the legal standing to bring the false advertising claim, because Ben & Jerry's no longer uses the "happy" cow label on its ice cream cartons.

“As a result, any possibility of future deception of plaintiff in a similar way to the harm alleged… is non-existent,” she concluded.

Ehlers said he’s conferring with his lawyers about amending his lawsuit. Ben & Jerry’s spokeswoman Laura Peterson said the court reached the right decision in dismissing the “meritless” claims.

“We’re proud of the work we’ve done with Vermont’s family farmers over the past 35 years, and we believe the Caring Dairy program is one of the most progressive in the industry,’ Peterson said in a written statement.

John worked for VPR in 2001-2021 as reporter and News Director. Previously, John was a staff writer for the Sunday Times Argus and the Sunday Rutland Herald, responsible for breaking stories and in-depth features on local issues. He has also served as Communications Director for the Vermont Health Care Authority and Bureau Chief for UPI in Montpelier.
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