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.

Comments

    Author:
    Lorraine
    Written:


    I am really glad to read this post. I am celiac and have severe soy allergies. I used to drink chai lattes daily and wondered why I still experienced issues. I stayed away from all the chocolate drinks, etc. asked questions etc. Bummer. I really LOVE starbucks drinks, would it be horrid if we asked for them to isolate out the soy at least for the steaming pots? Well, I know probably not, but I will miss starbucks. 🙁

    Author:
    Heidi Schmutzler
    Written:


    Starbucks baristas have been very helpful to us with a little prompting. We only deal with egg and peanut/treenut allwrgies, but at our last visit when my son wanted a chocolate milk, they brought out the chocolate powder used for mixing all their chocolate syrups/mochas and pointed out that it has an egg cross contamination warning on the label. This may not be true at every Starbucks, but it was an important thing to note for us. I’ve watched them mixing drinks and wouldn’t be at all comfortable there if I had milk or certain other allergies.

    Author:
    Chuck Serapilio
    Written:


    This action by Starbucks further endourses the reason I chose not to go to Starbucks. Their refusal to support those with allergies is sick. People with nut allergies can DIE. it’s not gluten and a tummy ach. Band resist and never go to Starbucks

    Author:
    Lauren
    Written:


    Thank you for posting as I was not aware of this. About a year ago I had a reaction to a latte I had ordered from a Starbucks I had never went to before. I have a soy intolerance and was pretty sure the barista had not used the correct pitcher. At my regular Starbucks I’ve never had any reactions. But now I will just stick to plain coffee, if I do go back.

    Author:
    Alisha C
    Written:


    My son gets the pink drink made in his cup not using a blender or steamer.
    I wish #Starbucks would get onboard with food allergies since they want to be progressive in other ways.

    Author:
    ReLisa Mitchell
    Written:


    Thank you for this enlightening blog. I was falsely under the impression that if the pitchers were properly labeled–and use–then cross-contamination was unlikely. Knowing that there are other touch points with milk in the equipment or preparation confirms that my daughter’s occasional allergic reactions were not due to an inattentive barista. We won’t take the chance again.

    Author:
    Sandra Tyler
    Written:


    My son who is allergic to peanuts tree nuts and possibly coconut is very cautious — he will only ever order lemonade which I have been assuming is safe? Do you know if there would be cross contaminates with that?

    Author:
    Allisa Simril
    Written:


    I was always extremely leery of Starbucks and their handling of Coffee at Cetera for the customers with severe food allergies. Which is why I do not patron there.
    If I want a cup of Joe I get it at home where I know that the coconut milk is just coconut milk and not ever coming in contact with some almond, soy, or some cows milk. For this very reason, personally can’t take the risk for myself because if I do come in contact with a small amount of either of those food allergens it can trigger symptoms that cause problems for other autoimmune diseases that I have.
    So to Starbucks, thank you for “trying”, but not hard enough. What it would take is for someone high up on the board of the company to actually have a reason “care” about their customers.

    Sayonara

    Author:
    Anne Fanton
    Written:


    As a senior citizen who has lived almost a lifetime with a very serious allergy to all tree nuts and peanuts, I greatly appreciate your alerting us to the increased risk at Starbucks. At the same time, I never assume complete safety and appreciate how much safety has increased since my childhood. The improved training of chefs and servers at nearly all restaurants has made a huge difference in my life. However, having lived without it, I am very appreciative of what they do for we who are food-allergic and do not want to put their kindness at risk by asking or demanding too much. We are still a minority of the population, not usually necessary to their profit margin and need to let them know often how much we appreciate their help.

    Author:
    Vivian
    Written:


    I have always asked the barista to give my a clean pitcher (clean with water and soap), I still knew that wasn’t going to be enough to prevent cross contamination, but at least, I would react less severe with my allergies for peanuts and tree nuts. I was very thankful to this baristas that they went out of their way to please me. But with this new way of doing things. I can’t risk my severe allergy to nuts for the crave for a Frappuccino anymore. Sorry to leave you, but no more Starbucks for me. ☹️

    Author:
    Jeanine Coppola
    Written:


    Thank you greatly. This is the most helpful information I have read regarding allergies. As the mother of a teenage girl with tree nut allergies your research and write up is a clear, easy to share – eye opener.

    Thank you.
    jeanine

    Author:
    Jollé
    Written:


    As a mother of a child with a peanut allergy and now I am newly allergic to tree nuts it makes me very sad that Starbucks cannot have separate choices for us. I will greatly miss it but like someone else said, making coffee at home is safe and it also gives peace of mind. I will reach out to Starbucks and complain and I highly recommend we all do because as a united front we can make a change!

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