Ben & Jerry’s sues owner Unilever over sale of Israel licence

US ice cream brand says operating in occupied territories conflicts with its ‘core values’

Ben & Jerry’s is suing Unilever over a dispute about ice cream sales in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, further straining relations between the brand and its UK parent company.

The maker of Cookie Dough and Phish Food ice cream filed a suit in a New York court late on Tuesday to block Unilever selling its Ben & Jerry’s brand in Israel to a local licensee, saying operating in the occupied territories conflicted with the group’s “core values”.

Vermont-based Ben & Jerry’s, which was acquired by Unilever in 2000 but retained an independent board, announced last year that it would no longer operate in the West Bank because of human rights concerns over the Israeli occupation.

However, Unilever last month agreed to sell its interests in Ben & Jerry’s in Israel to the licence holder, Avi Zinger’s American Quality Products — a move that Ben & Jerry’s said violated the terms of its takeover by the British consumer goods group.

“This dispute concerns the autonomy of Ben & Jerry’s independent board of directors, and the core values the company has spent the last 44 years establishing,” the company said in its filing to the US district court in Manhattan.

“The company’s core values of advancing human rights and dignity, supporting social and economic justice for historically marginalised communities ... are integral to Ben & Jerry’s identity.”

The company said that “without this court’s intervention, the independence of Ben & Jerry’s board of directors will be lost, and the company’s brand integrity ... forever tarnished”.

In a statement, Mr Zinger’s lawyer Alyza Lewin said: “It’s a done deal. Unilever chose the morally correct, socially just and principled path when it ensured that Ben & Jerry’s ice cream would always continue to be produced and sold in Israel and the West Bank.

“Avi Zinger stands arm-in-arm with Unilever and commends Unilever’s decision to forcefully defend its agreement with him,” she said.

Unilever, which owns hundreds of brands including Persil washing powder, Dove soap, Hellmann’s mayonnaise and Vaseline skin lotion, reiterated that “the deal has already closed” and said that it did not comment on pending litigation. — Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022