Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
February 1, 2000

Ben & Jerry's ice cream has a reputation for being the most politically correct item in your freezer. For years the company has decried the dangers of even trace levels of "toxins" in food. It is apparently unaware that toxins, such as arsenic, occur naturally in almonds, cherries, and many other natural foods.

Ben & Jerry's might be described as a chemically holier-than-thou company.

So it was more than a bit ironic when two investigators recently sent a sample of Ben & Jerry's World's Best Vanilla ice cream to a lab and found that the product contained traces of dioxin, which the media has often described as the most toxic chemical known to man. While only one container of ice cream was measured for dioxin, Ben & Jerry's personnel conceded that this one sample may very well be representative of their product.

Study authors Dr. Michael Gough and Steven Milloy bought a container of World's Best Vanilla in Montgomery County, Maryland and delivered it to an independent laboratory for dioxin analysis. The amount of dioxin in one serving of ice cream was determined to be 190 times greater than EPA's "virtually safe dose" (VSD) for the daily human intake of dioxin. It is important to note, however, that the VSD is based on studies performed on laboratory rodents.

With a calculated 1.1 million people eating 1 serving a day, the authors estimated that there could be an additional 209 cancers among lifetime consumers of Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

Actually, such a finding does not mean Ben & Jerry's ice cream is hazardous. There is no credible scientific evidence to conclude that the levels of dioxin in the ice cream could cause cancer in humans.

There is, however, a delicious irony here, because Ben & Jerry's has been caught in its own game. The company’s promotional literature states: "The only safe level of dioxin exposure is no exposure at all."

The reality is, if you look hard enough, you can find something in anything. In this case, it was dioxin in ice cream. According to Ben & Jerry's spokesperson Chrystie Heimert, the company stands by its statement regarding no safe level of dioxin. While Heimert acknowledged that there is dioxin in their ice cream, she denies the company is planning a nationwide recall of what Milloy calls "Tasty Toxics Ice Cream."

Is Ben & Jerry's ice cream with its trace of dioxin safe? Yes, it is. Also safe are the many other foods, natural or synthetic, found to have trace levels of chemicals that are of concern only at high doses, where they are poisonous or otherwise dangerous.

This discussion brings to mind the old adage that it is the dose that makes the poison. It’s a lesson Ben & Jerry’s ought to learn, and live by.


Francis Koschier, PhD, DABT, is director of toxicology at the American Council on Science and Health.