Recent Concerns About Food Allergy Risks at Starbucks Explained
Transparency is great. Transparency allow us, in the food allergy community, to make the most informed choices given our individual allergy sets and risk tolerance. To that end, I am very happy that a Starbucks barista stepped forward with a concern she felt would create greater risk to Starbucks’ food-allergic customers, and I am also very happy that Starbucks corporate office was willing to take the time to address my concerns and clarify, openly and honestly, the risks to our community.
For those who do not know the genesis of this story, a Starbucks barista shared a concern that was widely spread across social media a few days ago. It said, in part, “Starbucks made the decision to stop separating their milks into different steaming pitchers, blender pitchers, and shakers. We took off all the labels and now dairy, soy, coconut milk, almond milk, and other non-dairy liquids are no longer separated in different pitchers and while cross contamination was still an issue, it is now completely unavoidable.”
As this post spread, a few other baristas stepped up and to confirm. In addition, other individuals asked their local Starbucks baristas, called customer service, and even called corporate, all claiming to receive the same information. We wanted to verify or clarify, so we called corporate ourselves and had an excellent, open and frank discussion with a senior rep.
The bottom line is this – the risk level for food-allergic customers at Starbucks has really not changed. However, before anyone gets excited, the bad news is that the cross-contact risk was already significant and probably higher than people realized before.
For anyone who has stepped foot in a Starbucks (and who hasn’t), you know that it is often quite busy and employees have to move fast and keep moving. So the truth of the matter is that, while baristas DID in fact have labels on pitchers detailing the milk that should be used in that pitcher, those labels weren’t always being strictly adhered to and the baristas were often just grabbing whichever was nearest.
So why take off labels? Starbucks says they made the change in the name of transparency. In other words, they don’t want to give a false sense of security (and a false representation of risk) to their food-allergic customers.
Why do I believe them? The fact is that Starbucks is, and has been, very open about the fact that they use shared equipment and have a tremendous cross-contact risk. So even before these labels came off – and even now if you request a “fresh pitcher” that is sanitized– the product is still being exposed to cross-contact risk with the other equipment used to make your drink. That has not changed and will not change. Starbucks cannot guarantee safety from cross-contact and I appreciate that they are willing to make that clear. As a food-allergy advocate and father of kids with food allergies that would be at risk in this situation, am I happy about the level of risk at Starbucks? No. Do I wish they would do more to accommodate our community and make us feel more welcomed? Yes. But do I appreciate the up-front honesty that lets me know this isn’t a risk I want to take? Absolutely!
So, in summary:
- Starbucks has and will continue to use shared equipment that poses a cross-contact risk – nothing has changed there
- The removal of stickers on steaming and blending pitchers, etc. IS happening, but hasn’t changed the risk; if anything, doing so helps improve transparency about cross-contact risk
- Individuals can still request a barista get a fresh pitcher (deemed sanitized), but the cross-contact risk from other equipment will still exist!
- Starbucks pitchers on the customer side of the counter with regular milk, soy milk, etc. are also subject to the same cross-contact risk, even though the milk inside will be as advertised
- Starbucks is very clear that customers with food allergies need to know that the company cannot guarantee their safety from cross-contact
- Unfortunately, there are no initiatives in place at the moment to improve accommodations for food-allergic customers at Starbucks (however, they do read their customer feedback!)
I am very happy this issue came to light and thank those who brought it to our attention. While we would obviously like to be reading about more positive initiatives at Starbucks, we always welcome and appreciate the opportunity to share the truth with all of you, positive or negative.