February 24, 2002

Dairy Report Milking the public's food fears Protesting Starbucks — Coffee, Tea or rbST?

by Jon Entine

Don't expect Starbucks' founder Howard Schultz to show up anytime soon in a "Got Milk?" commercial. His company, accused of spiking lattes with "tainted" milk, faces a nasty spectacle at its coming shareholder meeting.

Demonstrations are planned Feb. 26 at more than 400 Starbucks in six countries, with San Francisco and Seattle as major targets. At issue: the company's milk policy.

While innocent consumers might be silly enough to believe milk is good for you, a coalition of activists claims the opposite. According to Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association, as much as 90 percent of American milk is "contaminated" with "pus, bacteria, and antibiotics."

True? Not according to Consumer Reports and virtually every medical research and health group that has studied the issue. According to the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. milk supply is regularly tested for antibiotics and is perfectly safe.

But the Organic Consumers Association believes that the FDA is a lackey for Corporate America, maintaining that the nation's milk supply is polluted by being mixed with milk from cows treated with a protein supplement known as recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rbST. This controversy has been brewing for almost a decade -- since dairy farmers discovered cows given rbST supplements produced more milk for a longer time. That would seem to be good --

it means stable prices, less feed and fuel expended, and environmental benefits from lower-producing dairy herds.

The hitch is that the supplement was developed using a bio-fermentation process. Although the process is similar to the science used to produce beer and wine, and doesn't change the milk produced, it involves biotechnology. According to activists, that makes most of America's milk supply a "Frankenfood" -- and a mortal threat. Starbucks is just a bit player and tactical target in this saga.

As usual, anxiety has eclipsed the facts. "We believe it's dangerous to animals and humans," says protest coordinator Simon Harris.

Even Michael Hansen, a scientist with Consumers Union (which publishes Consumer Reports) and the most cited opponent of genetic engineering in agriculture, acknowledges that "there is no conclusive evidence" of danger. And Consumer Reports notes that numerous studies "have concluded that milk from hormone-treated cows poses no appreciable risk to humans."

But inflamed concerns over genetic engineering have prompted a number of countries, including Canada and the European Union, to block the use of the drug internally while allowing imports of food made from the dozen or more countries that allow the use of rbST.

But, as Gene Kahn, founder of Cascadian Farm, a leading organic grower, puts it: "Everyone talks about how environmentally progressive our business is,

and that's bull. The conventional food industry, for all its faults, has higher levels of consumer disclosure and ethics than organics."

If we follow the prescription of the activists, the entire organic foods industry would have to shut down until it could guarantee uniform and higher health and safety standards.

Smelling blood, anti-genetic engineering campaigners have come up with an ingenious, if disingenuous, ploy -- calling on Starbucks and other food companies to label products made with genetically engineered ingredients. At first blush, this seems reasonable -- more consumer disclosure.

But in this highly charged situation, all sides acknowledge that a label is akin to a "skull and cross bones," in the words of Arianne Van Buren of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, which is spearheading the labeling resolution effort against some 30 other companies. The economic effect of the labeling could be catastrophic.

"We expect that they won't want to risk alienating their customers with labeling, so they'll eventually decide not to use any bio stuff at all," agrees Michael Passoff of As You Sow, another anti-genetic engineering investor group. As of today, the only alternative to "tainted" conventional milk is organic milk, costing 50 to 100 percent more.

Why pick on Howard Schultz? Because, writes Cummins in an Internet missive, if activists get Starbucks to "surrender" and dump all food that includes bio- ingredients, the really big fish -- food suppliers like Kraft and the national grocery chains -- will roll over, too. In other words, aim at a high-profile company like Starbucks that is vulnerable to challenges to its reputation for being "socially responsible."

It has worked before. In November, Trader Joe's, a billion-dollar upscale grocery chain "capitulated," in Cummins words, and pulled all products known to have genetically engineered ingredients.

Starbucks' executives are trying to figure out how to pull the company's beans out of this public relations bonfire but so far, they have looked pretty hapless. More than a year ago, Starbucks embarked down the path of surrender when it declared that it would soon provide "safer milk" -- that did not come from cows treated with rbST.

That was like lighting a match to kerosene. As activists duly noted, why was one of America's most noted brands callously risking its customers' health by offering "less safe" milk?

Whether fears fueling this controversy are more foam than substance, all sides agree that how Starbucks navigates the genetic engineering debate will have considerable effect on the American dairy and agriculture industries. Let's hope that 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, http://www.jonentine.com, is a contributing author of "Case Histories in Business Ethics: The Virtues and Moral Decision Making in Business" [Routledge, 2002].