It’s a Bummer about Starbucks.

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Anyone who has read my second book, The First Year: Celiac Disease and Living Gluten-Free, or has had the occasion to hear me speak about how to live a successful and happy gluten-free life, knows that when in doubt, I always advocate that folks contact manufacturers, restaurants and stores to verify the gluten-free status of their products or of their efforts to prevent cross-contamination. I make a determination of whether I will patronize an establishment or purchase a food product based upon what I learn from the company itself, and upon that company’s attitude toward me — a potential customer.

This is my opinion (you are free, of course, to disagree): when companies refuse to make any efforts to prevent cross-contamination, fail to implement a policy of segregation of food allergens, and refuse to be concerned about their “gluten-free” or “allergen-friendly/allergen-free” status, I do not believe that they want me as a customer, so I choose not to give them my consumer dollars.

So, when folks recently began emailing me to relate conflicting information about Starbucks retail chains, I decided that I would go straight to the source to learn Starbucks’ position on serving the gluten-free consumer. I frankly did not anticipate there would be any major issues, as Starbucks is primarily a retailer of beverages (most of which ought to be gluten free) and they had, at least in the past, shown an interest in serving the gluten-free consumer by offering gluten-free cakes and bars.

Most, if not all of Starbucks’ baked goods are baked off-site, and they are displayed in enclosed cases apart from the beverages. Additionally, most of their coffees and teas ought to be naturally gluten-free, and whatever non-gluten-free flavorings may be used, they are not airborne, further diminishing the chance of cross-contamination. However, Starbucks corporate is notoriously — and perhaps with good reason — very cautious about using the term “gluten-free” on anything they offer (except for the new separately packaged gluten-free sandwiches).

Thus, my disappointment after this email exchange with Starbucks’ customer service (all correspondence quoted below):

________

Dear Starbucks,

Please clarify your position on the gluten-free status of your products (non-bakery items). I would like to be able to accurately relate your position to the gluten-free community, many of whom have received conflicting information recently regarding your products. Thank you.

~jules shepard

blog.julesglutenfree.com

__________

Hello Jules,

Thank you for contacting Starbucks Coffee Company. Starbucks is unable to guarantee a “gluten-free” environment in our retail locations due to the potential for cross contamination with gluten-containing products. The open environment and operating procedures of our store locations may present additional risk for gluten-sensitive customers aside from the gluten-containing ingredients themselves.

If you have any further questions or concerns that I was unable to address, please feel free to let me know.

Warm Regards,

Marvin
Customer Relations
Starbucks Coffee Company
800 23-LATTE (235-2883)
Monday through Friday, 5AM to 8PM (PST)

_________

Hi Marvin,
Thanks for taking the time to respond to my inquiry. Just to be clear, are you seriously saying that Starbucks corporate policy won’t allow you to say that your coffee is gluten free?
Please clarify.
Thank you.
~jules shepard

_________

Hello Jules,

Thank you for contacting Starbucks Coffee Company. That is correct, due to cross contamination we can’t guarantee it.

________

In my opinion, if Starbucks was concerned about cross-contamination, yet was interested in business from the gluten-free consumer, they would contact the Gluten Free Restaurant Awareness Program (GFRAP) – a program run by the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America and partnered with AllergyEats – or the Gluten-Free Resource Education Awareness Training (GREAT) – program run by the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.

Starbucks could then implement these program techniques for preventing whatever cross-contamination might occur in their retail stores, and affirmatively represent to our community that they want our business and are prepared to do what it takes (which shouldn’t be much, in their case) to earn it.

It’s not rocket science. Actual restaurants all over the country (making and serving both gluten and gluten-free foods) are trained and now serving our community safely. The fact that a coffee shop chain isn’t, shows me that they don’t care enough to do it.

Until then, I will be drinking my soy chai tea lattes elsewhere.

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41 thoughts on “It’s a Bummer about Starbucks.

  1. My 16 yr old daughter was recently diagnosed with CD. She decided during school to walk into the Starbucks next door and ask if the vanilla iced coffee was gluten free. The server/barista said it was just coffee and ice and flavoring and it was safe.
    My daughter drank half and started to have chest pains, difficulty breathing, nauseous and overall sick.
    She had to leave school and went home ill.
    I contacted the Starbucks manager immediately and she said she did not know what the ingredients were in the natural flavorings etc.
    I contacted corporate office and had the same response.
    We will never go to a Starbucks again.

    • Hi Deidre, I’m so sorry that happened! They should always be able to show you the bottle of whatever flavorings are used, and I agree that it’s unacceptable for them to tell you that they don’t know what allergens are present in their products. I’m so sorry about your daughter getting sick there. I hope she’s feeling much better now!
      It still amazes me that there are so many companies/restaurants out there that don’t know or disclose ingredients. I went to another coffee chain recently and asked which coffees and teas were gluten free and they told me NONE! I don’t believe that either. It’s just a matter of whether they care enough about celiac and food allergy customers to check on ingredients and to make them known. Hopefully you complained to the corporate office while you had them on the phone!
      ~jules

  2. I feel like Starbucks is being really honest here, and I’m grateful for it.

    I’ve been glutened too many times by companies who’d rather lie about their abilities to avoid cross-contamination or companies who take advantage of the ineffective new gluten laws to call their product “considered gluten free in USA but not in Canada” law-speak just to make sales on uneducated and extremely vulnerable celiac consumers.

    I’d rather an honest company like Starbucks willing to lose out on some sales over a scummy scammy company just looking to make a quick buck using lies any day.

  3. I experienced the exact same thing when I contacted Starbucks. Boy, was I pissed off at first. Such a big company caring so little. Pretty much screams,”We are so successful we don’t care if we have your business or not.” I very rarely indulge these days.I have never had ANY other company respond in this way. Very eye opening as to what kind of company they are.

    • It’s a shame, Tina, that it seems they are still apparently drinking their own Kool-Aid (or lattes, as the case may be) on this, and don’t value the GF consumer at all.

  4. I have Celiac’s AND IBS and have been told that coffee is bad for both. I never feel good after having a cup of coffee, even made from my own Keurig, with flavored GF creamer. I am sticking with either chai or regular tea. I have also heard…not sure how true, that Dunkin Donuts coffee is not GF…

  5. i go to starbucks like, every day of my life and get coffee type beverages. one of the reasons they probably won’t guarantee gluten free is because the people who work there are touching baked goods and then touching your coffee ect….so you could probably get sick from just touching the cup. coffee itself makes alot of celiac’s (including myself) have some sort of reaction and im sure it is in their best interest as far as the big corporate picture goes to not guarantee anything because they don’t want someone to get sick and sue the mermaid off their cups. they now have gluten free food items, and as a highly sensitive celiac i can say from personal experience many of their coffee drinks are fine. its a bad corporate move to make guarantees, just from a business prospective. it is the same thing with dominoes pizza not guaranteeing their gluten free pizza to be gluten free. its the business side of things. if you are so worried about getting sick from coffeehouse drinks, good luck because almost nowhere can guarantee that you will be safe with them. not dunkin (they have no gfree coffee) not anything major….but starbucks still has amazing coffee and if you are careful you should be okay