Ben & Jerry's, which ranks fifth among U.S. ice cream brands by sales, says it doesn't consider GMOs unsafe to humans either, but has always positioned itself as an environmentally friendly, socially progressive brand. Executives long wanted to drop GMOs, which they feel are part of industrialized, chemical-intensive agriculture that the company opposes, said Mr. Michalak, the social mission director. But the company didn't start discussing converting its flavors with suppliers until 2012.
That year, anti-GMO advocates got on the California ballot Proposition 37, a measure requiring GMO labeling similar to the one that later passed in Vermont. Food and agriculture companies poured more than $46 million into advertising to fight the measure, saying it would confuse consumers and raise food costs. The measure narrowly failed to pass, but it galvanized GMO opponents and put the industry on notice.
Ben & Jerry's didn't get directly involved in the California fight. But the battle "catalyzed the movement for us," said Cheryl Pinto, Ben & Jerry's ingredient sourcing manager. "When all the non-GMO hoopla hit the fan, we realized we better accelerate our conversion."
Aside from the milk, Ben & Jerry's said most ice cream ingredients were already non-GMO. Still, the company needed to check with suppliers and rigorously investigate all 110 ingredients it uses to make ice cream. Among the surprises: finding out a product couldn't be considered non-GMO if the supplier dusted the pan with cornstarch before baking. The supplier had to switch to rice starch.
"Our suppliers generally had to negotiate all the way down the supply chain to get to the farmer," Ms. Pinto said.
At the farm level, companies confront a chicken-or-egg-type conundrum. Food makers are hesitant to commit to dropping GMOs until they are sure they can find sufficient sources of non-GMO crops. But farmers are reluctant to switch seeds unless they know there will be guaranteed demand for non-GMO crops at a premium price.
Mercaris, a market data researcher, said prices last year for non-GMO corn averaged 51 cents per bushel higher than those for regular, GMO corn. That is a significant difference for farmers when the national average corn price was between $4 to $4.50. But some farmers also worry that dropping GMO seeds could lower their yields, meaning fewer bushels per acre.
Ben & Jerry's paid an average of 11% more for each ingredient that changed to a non-GMO version. In some cases that also included the higher cost of sourcing ingredients from Fair Trade suppliers—those certified as paying fair prices to producers in developing countries—which it did simultaneously.
The company says it can't quantify how much it spent on the non-GMO conversion in total. "It was really expensive," Ms. Pinto said. "Surcharges came in from transportation. Instead of buying beet sugar from down the road, you're buying cane sugar from much farther away." The conversion also required time and money to design new labeling and marketing and carry out legal reviews, she said.
For its Chubby Hubby ice cream, Ben & Jerry's had to change peanut butter pretzel suppliers because ConAgra Foods Inc., which bought the company that supplied the pretzels, was unwilling or unable to adhere to the non-GMO and Fair Trade requirements, according to people familiar with the situation. The change in suppliers also caused a shift from peanut butter-filled pretzels to peanut butter-coated ones, prompting some consumers to complain. ConAgra declined to comment.
To some degree, Ben & Jerry's process was simple relative to what some companies put themselves through. Unlike with organic foods—which also can't contain GMOs but must follow additional restrictions—the government sets no standard for what qualifies as "non-GMO." Companies seeking some authoritative imprimatur must go to third-party certifiers, usually the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit group founded by natural foods retailers. It vets applicants with an almost religious exactitude.
To gain its certification, Enjoy Life Foods LLC, a small Schiller Park, Ill.-based company that makes gluten- and allergen-free snacks, traced its honey to the hive. "We had to go to our honey suppliers, who went to the bee keepers, who had to actually determine how far the bees could fly to make sure they weren't cross-pollinating at any GMO fields," said Joel Warady, its chief sales and marketing officer.
He said the company thought it was done a year before it actually was, because Non-GMO Project kept coming with questions, including how far their bees flew. "I was like, 'Are you serious? I don't know,' " said Mr. Warady. " 'I didn't talk to the bees.' "
The Non-GMO Project, which has verified more than 17,000 products, says such lengths are necessary to ensure the bees aren't feeding on nectar or pollen from GMO crops. Thus, the organization requires a four-mile radius from the bee hives be clear of GMO fields.
"Consumers don't know how difficult it is, but they also don't care how difficult it is," said Mr. Warady. "They say, 'I want the food all natural. I want it to be non-GMO. I want it to taste great. And by the way, I don't want to pay any more for that. Figure it out.' " Enjoy Life Foods doesn't explicitly pass on the added costs, but its food is already priced at a premium to mainstream brands. For its part, Ben & Jerry's didn't seek Non-GMO Project certification, citing the complexity, but does use an auditor. "For us, our size and our scale, we had to be" realistic about where to start, Ms. Pinto said.
The number of big companies that have announced plans to drop GMOs is still small. Big industry groups like the Grocery Manufacturers Association say the trend is baseless, but they admit it is growing. They continue to lobby against GMO labeling and tout the benefits of the technology.
Still, industry executives say many of those companies are asking suppliers to develop non-GMO options so that they can be ready in case label mandates spread, which the companies fear could hurt products containing GMOs. Brian Sethness, senior account executive at Sethness Products Co., which supplies caramel coloring to major food and beverage companies, said the company is receiving more inquiries about non-GMO products than ever before. "Most haven't pulled the trigger yet though, they just want to know what's out there," he said.
For Ben & Jerry's, the biggest hurdle is milk. The vast majority of the feed given to dairy cows in the U.S. is made with GMO corn, soybeans and alfalfa. That makes it difficult to find non-GMO milk in quantities large enough for Ben & Jerry's, so the company hasn't committed to doing it. Labeling laws like the one passed in Vermont don't apply to meat or dairy derived from animals that consumed GMO animal feed, buying Ben & Jerry's more time. "We are having conversations with multiple stakeholders throughout the entire supply chain," Mr. Michalak said. "It's a slow process."