Consumers have turned to social media in recent months to express concern and outrage over a rumored relationship between Starbucks and Monsanto, one of the world’s largest genetically modified organism (GMO) seed producers. The relationship is not a direct one though. It is through a powerful lobby group that both companies have joined: the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA).
The concern is that the GMA — which is headquartered in Washington, D.C. — openly pushes a pro-GMO agenda through legal and political means. Roughly 300 other food and agro-chemical companies are members of the GMA, including Dow AgroSciences, Coca-Cola, and General Mills.
The lobby group formed in 1908 in response to several food laws designed to protect consumers. One of those laws was the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act, which targeted adulteration and mandated accurate food labeling. The act built the foundation for today’s Food and Drug Administration.
Starbucks and the GMA
Starbucks’ GMA membership went largely unnoticed until June 2015 when Canadian musician Neil Young released his 36th album called The Monsanto Years. In the third track, A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop, Mr. Young sings:
“When the people of Vermont wanted to label food with GMOs
So that they could find out what was in what the farmer grows
Monsanto and Starbucks through the Grocery Manufacturers Alliance
They sued the state of Vermont to overturn the people’s will”
Here is the full version of A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop from neilyoungchannel:
Mr. Young’s lyrics were referring to a lawsuit that the GMA filed against the State of Vermont on June 13, in an attempt to repeal the state’s new GMO labeling law. After the album’s release, Starbucks put out a statement that said it is not part of the lawsuit or any lobbying for GMOs.
But the song’s lyrics got people thinking. Twitter users responded to the album with posts like:
I ordered 100 copies of Neil Young’s “The Monsanto Years.” He attacks Monsanto, Starbucks, Chevron, and WalMart. pic.twitter.com/jy4T5a2wyN
— David Hance (@dhance6033) June 22, 2015
Another Twitter user wrote:
Vermont state sets a precedent
Vermont’s new law on GMO labeling will take affect July 1, 2016. Some foods — including meat, dairy, and foods served in restaurants — will be exempt from the labeling requirements.
In a statement from October 2015, a GMA spokesman acknowledged that the lobby group would be unable to block the law before it takes effect because the legal process would likely take a year. The spokesman wrote: “That leaves only Congress with the authority to prevent this law and others like it from enactment.”
In response to the bad press from Mr. Young’s album, Starbucks released a statement that said it was not part of any lawsuit in Vermont, nor did it provide any funding for a pro-GMO campaign, and it is not aligned with Monsanto to stop food labeling. The company said that it prefers “a national solution.”
That national solution may be the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, which had the support of the GMA and a host of other food industry and lobby groups. The bill passed through the House July 23 with 275 votes for and 150 against. Opponents labeled the bill the “Denying Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act.”
But the legislation failed to make it through Congress before the end of the year, which means the advocates for the legislation will have to start their process anew next year.
President and CEO of the GMA Pamela Bailey issued a statement December 16 regarding “the failure of Congress to reach agreement this year on legislation that prevents a costly and confusing 50-state patchwork of mandatory GMO labeling laws.
“In January, food manufacturers will face exponentially increasing costs totaling hundreds of millions of dollars to comply with Vermont’s GMO labeling mandate,” she wrote.
GMA proposes alternative to traditional labeling
The GMA’s stance is that GMOs are safe for human consumption and that this is backed by scientific research. Spokesman Brian Kennedy told VISION TIMES via email that the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, and many other organizations have found GMOs safe.
In response to consumers calling for clear GMO labeling on foods, the GMA has proposed an alternative: Food labeling that requires consumers to look up the ingredients in their food via the Internet, either on a smartphone, computer, or tablet.
“By the end of 2017, we estimate that 20,000 food products will disclose through SmartLabel™ whether they contain ingredients sourced from genetically engineered crops — and that number could triple once Congress passes a uniform national standard for GMOs,” Ms. Bailey wrote in her statement on December 16.
Starbucks and health lobbyists’ concerns
Organic and anti-GMO groups have praised Starbucks for using rBGH-free milk. However, because dairy cows are often fed a GMO diet, people have expressed concern that Starbucks’ milk is contaminated with GMOs. Several groups have started petitions calling for Starbucks to use organic milk. Starbucks currently does offer organic soymilk.
While nutritional information — i.e., the calorie counts — is available on the Starbucks website, the company does not generally disclose the specific ingredients in its beverages.
A blog post last year riled up netizens. Food Babe website founder Vani Hari suggested that Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte has a toxic ingredient, the caramel coloring, that has been linked to cancer.
This year Starbucks has changed the recipe. According to an official blog post dated August 17 2015, the Pumpkin Spice Latte is now made with real pumpkin and without the artificial caramel coloring.
A Starbucks spokesperson acknowledged that GMO labeling is of interest to some of its customers.
“We work closely with others across our industry to study the broader GMO issue to determine the best path forward,” a Starbucks spokesperson wrote in an email to VISION TIMES, “Like many multinational companies, we join trade associations such as GMA because it is important for Starbucks to participate in trade associations giving us a voice in the industry debate about exactly these kinds of issues.”
Starbucks operates 20,000 retail stores in 67 countries.