Coffee Collusion

Is Starbucks teaming up with Monsanto to sue the state of Vermont for the right to avoid GMO labels?

Claim:   Starbucks has joined Monsanto in a lawsuit against Vermont to avoid the implementation of GMO labeling regulations.

TRUE: Starbucks is a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a group challenging Vermont over GMO labeling requirements.
FALSE: Starbucks has joined forces with Monsanto to sue the state of Vermont over GMO labeling requirements.

Example:   [Collected via e-mail, November 2014]

Starbucks doesn't think you have the right to know what's in your coffee. So it's teamed up with Monsanto to sue the small U.S. state of Vermont to stop you from finding out.

Origins:   In November 2014, a petition claiming coffee
giant Starbucks had "teamed up" with agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation Monsanto to sue the state of Vermont over a GMO (genetically modified organism) labeling law began to circulate heavily on social media sites. Given the massive popularity of Starbucks and broad worry over genetically modified foods, the petition caused concern amid many Starbucks drinkers over whether their daily latte habit was somehow funding big agribusiness bullies.

General consumer unease with what are often unclear links between large corporations as well as growing distaste for massive food conglomerates made the claim particularly unsettling to many social media users. Most consumers lack the luxury to make all their own foods and drinks at home, and to some extent, we all place our trust in large companies to do right by their customers in choosing safe ingredients and not abusing their financial strength by bullying less-powerful entities.

A quick scan of Twitter reveals widespread belief Starbucks has suddenly decided to abandon its socially and nutritionally conscious consumer base to join forces with Monsanto, but is that really the case? Most of the chatter points back to the petition, initiated by a group called SumOfUs. On its Facebook about page, SumOfUs describes its mission:
We are a movement of consumers, investors and workers counterbalancing the power of large corporations to forge a just, sustainable path for the global economy.
The relevant petition can be found on the SumOfUs website:
Starbucks doesn't think you have the right to know what's in your coffee. So it's teamed up with Monsanto to sue the small U.S. state of Vermont to stop you from finding out.

Hiding behind the shadowy Grocery Manufacturers' Association, Starbucks is part of a lawsuit that's aiming to block a landmark law that requires genetically-modified ingredients be labeled. Amazingly, they are claiming it's an assault on their corporate right to free speech. Even a local Vermont company, Green Mountain Coffee, has joined in.
The quoted portion makes it clear Starbucks isn't the entity driving the lawsuit at which the petition takes aim. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), a large food industry group of which Starbucks is one of more than 300 members, is the trade organization behind the litigation in question. To call the group "shadowy" is somewhat misleading: GMA has a web site that presents their clear stance on the issue of genetically modified foods and labeling and that included a 2014 membership directory openly listing Starbucks and Monsanto as members. (The online membership directory link is no longer accessible from GMA's web site, and the organization did not respond to our inquiry about it.)

The petition explains (in essence) why Starbucks has been singled out among GMA-affiliated companies as a target of consumer pressure:
SumOfUs members have already chipped in to support Vermont's legal defense fund, and we need to keep it up. Monsanto might not care what we think — but Starbucks does. If we can generate enough attention, we can push Starbucks to withdraw its support for the lawsuit, and then force other companies to do the same.

Sign the petition to tell Starbucks and Green Mountain Coffee to withdraw their support for the lawsuit against Vermont, and stop fighting accurate food labeling.

Vermont is a small, entirely rural state with just 600,000 people. It's a classic David and Goliath fight — Vermont vs. Monsanto and Starbucks, some of the most powerful corporations in the world.
The petition references Vermont's Act 120, voted upon in April 2014 and signed into law on 8 May 2014. Under the provisions of the new law, Vermont is poised to became the first state to require labeling of all foods containing genetically modified ingredients by 1 July 2016.

On 13 June 2014, the GMA issued a press release stating its intent to challenge the law in Vermont, positing the law was unconstitutional and citing the First Amendment. In its statement, the trade group expressed concern more states would follow Vermont's lead and adversely affect the food industry by imposing labeling standards that serve no health or safety interest:
Today, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), along with the Snack Food Association, International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers, filed a complaint in federal district court in Vermont challenging the state's mandatory GMO labeling law. GMA issued the following statement in conjunction with the legal filing.

"Vermont's mandatory GMO labeling law — Act 120 — is a costly and misguided measure that will set the nation on a path toward a 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling policies that do nothing to advance the health and safety of consumers. Act 120 exceeds the state's authority under the United States Constitution and in light of this, GMA has filed a complaint in federal district court in Vermont seeking to enjoin this senseless mandate.

"Act 120 imposes burdensome new speech requirements — and restrictions — that will affect, by Vermont's count, eight out of every ten foods at the grocery store. Yet Vermont has effectively conceded this law has no basis in health, safety, or science. That is why a number of product categories, including milk, meat, restaurant items and alcohol, are exempt from the law. This means that many foods containing GMO ingredients will not actually disclose that fact.

"The First Amendment dictates that when speech is involved, Vermont policymakers cannot merely act as a pass-through for the fads and controversies of the day. It must point to a truly "governmental" interest, not just a political one. And the Constitution prohibits Vermont from regulating nationwide distribution and labeling practices that facilitate interstate commerce. That is the sole province of the federal government. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency have both the mandate and expertise to incorporate the views of all the stakeholders at each link in the chain from farm to fork."
On 9 November 2014, musician Neil Young stated that he was no longer going to patronize Starbucks due to the GMA lawsuit. On 15 November 2014, Starbucks addressed the claims. The coffee chain sent a tweet with a link to a longer statement:

The statement indicated Starbucks asked the petition be edited to reflect their position and lack of involvement in the lawsuit against the state of Vermont:
Starbucks is not a part of any lawsuit pertaining to GMO labeling nor have we provided funding for any campaign. And Starbucks is not aligned with Monsanto to stop food labeling or block Vermont State law.

The petition claiming that Starbucks is part of this litigation is completely false and we have asked the petitioners to correct their description of our position.

Starbucks has not taken a position on the issue of GMO labeling. As a company with stores and a product presence in every state, we prefer a national solution.
Grocery Manufacturers Association spokesman Brian Kennedy said that Starbucks is an "affiliate member" of the GMA and is not involved in actions such as the Vermont lawsuit:
As an affiliate member, [Starbucks] is not involved in any policy, governance, or legal work with the Association, which includes the lawsuit in Vermont.
In summary: Although Starbucks is a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the lawsuit targeted by the petition was initiated by that group and not by Starbucks or Monsanto; and direct collusion between Starbucks and Monsanto on the issue is neither evident nor germane to the dispute between the state of Vermont and the GMA.

Last updated:   17 November 2014

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