For years, Bellevue lawyer and mother Meg Perrine went to Starbucks for its Coffee Light Frappuccinos, one of the only coffee drinks someone like Perrine, who has celiac disease, could safely ingest.
Celiac is but the most serious of the many disorders that can afflict a person whose body can’t tolerate gluten, a protein found in grains. A crazy amount of foods have it. But, as gluten-intolerant folks across the country have long known—Coffee Light Frappuccinos didn’t.
Perrine happened to be in a Starbucks a month ago when she overheard a barista mention a new recipe for the Coffee Light Frappuccinos. “Red flags went up for me, so I asked the barista if this new recipe was still gluten-free,” Perrine said. “The guy assured me it was.”
Stung before, Perrine asked to see the ingredient information, which the barista agreeably provided. “There in bold print: Gluten,” Perrine said. “Normally there are about 40 words that signify gluten without actually saying it…but this one actually said it!”
The barista was quick to apologize, but Perrine wasn’t satisfied. Over the next couple of weeks she visited no fewer than 12 different Starbucks stores, all of which had made the switch to the new Coffee Light Frappuccino recipe—but none of which had a single barista or manager who knew that gluten was now present in the drink.
One in Arizona even blurted, “That’s why so many people have been telling me they’re getting sick!” Perrine reported. (Those with gluten-intolerance undergo variously vivid bowel ailments when they ingest it by accident, but celiacs, like Perrine, suffer a more nefarious consequence: symptomless damage to the small intestine, which can lead to cancer.)
What up, Starbucks?
Starbucks never claimed its beverages were gluten-free in the first place, a spokesperson clarified. “We use shared equipment and handle gluten and allergens throughout the store,” she emailed. “I am hoping this is an isolated incident and sincerely apologize to the customer for any misinformation given. We always encourage our customers, especially those with serious health concerns such as celiac disease, to visit www.Starbucks.com and click through to the ‘nutrition’ page where all ingredients for food and beverages are listed publicly.”
Not good enough, insists Perrine. “In other words, Starbucks is saying that because they never claimed it was a gluten-free product, they don’t have to give notice, and don’t plan to give notice, even though it’s making people sick,” Perrine paraphrased. “Is that illegal? Absolutely not! But they’re aware it’s making people sick—and doing absolutely nothing about it. That’s what I’d like to see changed.”
How about signage in stores, clarifying to the gluten-intolerant that the new recipe is no longer safe for them? suggests Perrine. If the employees can’t be counted on to purvey the correct ingredient information, she says, that’s the least Starbucks should do.
In an email to Perrine, Starbucks’ Director of Blended Beverages Ian Cranna respectfully disagreed.
“It is not our policy to include additional ingredient information on in-store signage and we have no current plans to do that for frappuccino. We will be communicating this change specifically to all stores to draw attention to it in the event of customer questions.”
“Hundreds of thousands of people will get sick,” Perrine laments. “What a shame.”