February 27, 2002
Toronto, Ontario

Protesters don't know beans about milk

Jon Entine

Don't expect Starbucks' founder Howard Schultz to show up in a "Got Milk?" commercial. Accused of selling "tainted" lattes, Starbucks has faced demonstrations over the past week, culminating with yesterday's rally at its Seattle annual meeting.

"I hate Starbucks," said a demonstrator over the weekend in Toronto, at one of 400 protests in six countries. "We have to pressure them to be responsible."

The issue? The company's milk policy.

While consumers might believe milk is good for you, organic activists allege 90% of North America's milk is "contaminated" with "pus, bacteria and antibiotics." They've specifically targeted Canadian Starbucks, which sell Frappuccinos that they claim Health Canada has rejected as unsafe because of "animal and public health concerns."

This issue, to be clear, is not about milk or Starbucks. The histrionics are directed at genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Activists charge that dairy supplies are polluted by being mixed with milk from cows treated with a protein supplement, recombinant bovine somatotropin or rbST.

A decade ago, farmers discovered that cows given supplements produce more milk for a longer time. It means less feed and fuel expended, and associated environmental benefits compared with lower-producing dairy herds. But the bio-fermentation production process, which is similar to making beer and wine, and doesn't change the milk, involves biotechnology. Anti-GMO activists attach the label "Frankenfoods," which serves the purpose of demonizing bio-engineering.

Despite the controversy, farmers have seen increases in yields of corn, soybeans and cotton. These have been genetically modified to include natural insecticides, which also cuts spraying of chemicals. There is no evidence that GMOs pose any more risks than traditional crossbreeding and gene-splicing that have given us such products as the tangelo and seedless grapes.

Are milk drinkers endangered? Not according to Consumer Reports, which notes that studies "have concluded that milk from hormone-treated cows poses no appreciable risk to humans." That's telling because the most cited critic is Michael Hansen, a scientist with Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports.

Yet even Hansen says no studies confirm human health risks. The only mildly damning issue: rbST results in more udder infections in cows. But the slightly higher risk of infections, which are treatable, is the natural consequence of producing more milk, not from the drug.

Inflamed concerns prompted Canada and the European Union to block internal use of rbST, while allowing imports of food made with it. Health Canada commissioned the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons to study the allegations of harm to humans. The January, 1999, report rejected the concerns voiced by Hansen and determined milk from rbST-supplemented cows to be as safe as any other milk.

Undercut by research findings, anti-GMO forces invoke the lowest common denominator in scientific disputes, the "precautionary principle." "Better safe than sorry" has nice a ring of moderation, but it's deceptive.

If consumers apply the principle to alternative foods, organics would be pulled from the shelves overnight. Numerous investigations, including a series in The New York Times and a piece by me in Vegetarian Times, both in 1998, documented that "natural" and organic foods are plagued by quality control concerns.

"Everyone talks about how environmentally progressive our business is, and that's bull," Cascadian Farm founder Gene Kahn told me. "The conventional food industry, for all its faults, has higher levels of consumer disclosure and ethics than organics."

While alternative growers have faced numerous health incidents -- consider the death of a Seattle girl from drinking unpasteurized, and E. coli-laced apple juice, made by a natural and organic producer -- there have been no documented health problems, and certainly no deaths or injuries, linked to bio-engineering.

Social investors, who could have taken the high road on a complex issue, instead embrace the tactics of activists. Yesterday, they proposed a resolution, overwhelmingly defeated, that would require Starbucks to label products made with GMOs.

At first blush, this seems reasonable ... more consumer disclosure. But as Arianne Van Buren of the U.S. Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility cheerfully notes, that's akin to slapping "a skull and cross bones" on the product. "We expect that they won't want to risk alienating their customers with labelling, so they'll eventually decide not to use any bio-stuff at all," agrees Michael Passoff of As You Sow.

"Ethical" campaigns are planned against 30 companies. Why Starbucks first? Activists boast that if they can intimidate it into "surrendering," the really big fish such as Kraft will roll over. In other words, target a weak link -- a high-profile company that is vulnerable to challenges to its reputation for being "socially responsible."

Sadly, if bio-engineered crops and supplements are shelved, the biggest losers would be consumers and farmers, particularly those in the poorest countries, and the environment. In this climate, it's understandable that executives are holed up at Starbucks headquarters trying to figure out how to pull the company's beans out of this public relations bonfire.

All sides agree that how Starbucks navigates this issue will have considerable impact on the entire agriculture industry and the future of genetic engineering. Let's hope Schultz and company recognize that acting responsibly means rejecting extortionist threats and, once and for all, rejecting hysteria as the measure of corporate social responsibility.

Jon Entine is a contributing author of Case Histories in Business Ethics: The Virtues and Moral Decision Making in Business (Routledge, 2002).