Starbucks protestors spread false fears about safe foods

Published May 1, 2002

Anti-biotechnology activists engaged in a week of “direct action” at Starbucks Coffee shops in February with false and misleading information about food safety, nutrition, and the environment.

The same people who brought you a long list of other false health and environmental scares—including the infamous Alar-in-apples scare, the Dow-Corning breast implant campaign, and dozens of other debunked fears—are at it again. This time the scaremongers are targeting such safe foods as milk and other dairy products in your local Starbucks.

As they did with the Alar-in-apples scare, activists often attack products associated with children—like milk and ice cream—falsely linking these products with horrible ills such as cancer to evoke the greatest fear among parents and the consuming public. The harm and cost to consumers and farmers alike can be significant.

Much ado about Alar

In 1989 environmental activists and their public relations firm, Fenton Communications, claimed apple growers’ use of the plant growth regulator Alar was causing cancer in children who eat apples and drink apple juice. The claims made national headlines and were highlighted on news programs like 60 Minutes. They turned out to be false, but they cost apple farmers (particularly those in Washington State) hundreds of millions of dollars, increased consumer food costs, and caused a significant spike in consumer purchases of organic produce. Fenton Communications also represented organic food industry interests, who funded the environmental activists.

When the science and health community responded, showing the offending “cancer-causing” chemical was, in fact, less carcinogenic than bacon, tap water, or peanut butter (Bruce Ames, University of California Berkeley), it was too late. The public relations firm had achieved its goal: “The PR campaign was designed so that revenue would flow back to the (client) from the public.” (Fenton Communications memo published in the Wall Street Journal, 10/3/1999).

When confronted over a decade later, when the false “cancer in children” fears failed to materialize, the PR firm referred inquiries to its client, the Natural Resources Defense Council, which stated, “The message of that report might have been muddled by the media, and the public might have over-reacted, because we never said there was an immediate danger from Alar…” (PR Central’s Inside PR Monday, September 4, 2000)

Starbucks deja vu

Now, more than a decade later, the same public relations firm and the same activists are in Seattle and at local corner coffee shops across the country, spreading false fears about the safety of milk from cows supplemented with bioengineered bovine growth hormones (rbST).

This time, Fenton Communications represents ice cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry’s and a variety of other “organic” and “natural” products companies whose sales benefit from these scares. Fenton also represents the Genetically Engineered Food Alert coalition, which is attacking the safety of dairy products derived from cows supplemented with rbST. Once again, the activists are funded by the benefitting organic industry interests.

The public relations campaign promotes false claims by evolutionary ecologist Michael Hansen, Dr. Samuel Epstein (ranked by the American Association for Cancer Research as the least credible scientist on issues of environmental cancer), and fired Fox journalists-turned-activists Steve Wilson and Jane Akre.

These self-proclaimed experts claim dairy products from rbST-supplemented cows cause cancer; that the cows themselves are harmed by rbST supplements; and that small dairy farmers are hurt by the competition. But hundreds of real experts have published and commented on these issues, and their conclusions differ dramatically from those reached by the scaremongers:

  • American Cancer Society: “There are no valid findings to indicate a risk of human carcinogenesis.”
  • Health Canada (Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada expert panel): There is “no biologically plausible reason for concern about human safety.”
  • Children’s Nutrition Research Center (Baylor College of Medicine): There is “no scientific basis for claims regarding bovine somatotropin and IGF-1 … [I]f (these claims) were true, then human colostrum, human breast milk, and indeed, all milk would be incriminated as a cause of cancer … [W]omen and their children have nothing to fear regarding the nation’s milk supply.”
  • The American Medical Association: “BST is a protein hormone that is produced naturally by cows to help them make milk. Supplementing cows with small amounts of BST has been shown to increase their milk production by 10-40 percent per cow without harming the animal or altering the nutritional value of their milk.”
  • National Institutes of Health (Journal of the American Medical Association): “rbST-treated cows experience no greater health problems than untreated cows.”
  • Former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop: “Unfortunately, a few fringe groups are using misleading statements and blatant falsehoods as part of a long-running campaign to scare consumers about a perfectly safe food. Their long-range goal is to prevent the benefits of biotechnology from reaching the public. Because dairy foods are an important, widely consumed source of nutrition, it is necessary to condemn these attacks on the safety of milk for what they are: baseless, manipulative, and completely irresponsible.”

So, next time you look at a pint of eco-friendly Ben & Jerry’s or the premium-priced organic milk option offered by Starbucks, remember: All milk contains bovine growth hormones—they are naturally produced by all dairy cows.

Supplementing dairy cows to help them maintain their natural peak levels of this hormone does not change the milk in any way—but it does help protect our environment by enabling family dairy farmers to produce more milk with fewer cows. This results in significantly less water and fuel use, less grain and land under the plow, and less animal waste. This safe product—used by more small dairy farmers than large—also helps family farmers remain profitable and ensure they can afford to pass along their farms to future generations.

Biotechnology helps farmers produce more safe and nutritious food, using less land and less input. This is good for consumers, good for the environment, and good for farmers. Misleading fear campaigns, on the other hand, are not.

For more information …

Visit the Web site of the American Council on Science and Health,