Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Starbucks Again...This Time They Really Blew It

I never thought I'd be forced to write about Starbucks so much in one week, but here I go again! I keep wanting to offer my Valentine's Day candy, baked goods posts and stuff keeps happening! Well, stay tuned for the V-Day stuff.

My friend Wendy of the excellent blog Celiacs in the House just sent me this link and I'm sure the Starbucks story is all over the allergy blogs today.

According to the news reports, a Canadian woman experienced a near fatal reaction after consuming a yogurt parfait in one of the Starbucks cafes. The item was not labeled as containing nuts, but it cut off oxygen to her brain, nearly killed her and ruined her eyesight in one eye. Read the full story here.

Well, there are a lot of things to be freaked out about here. The first one is, the allergic woman did "everything right" in terms of reading a label and asking the staff what's in the food item.

The problem is--who can you trust? The workers at Starbucks, if the parfaits are delivered to the store each a.m. as I assume they are, do they really know what's in it? Are they trained to know what ingredients go into their foods, even? How does Starbucks go about addressing food allergies? Like many of you, I've read labels that say nothing about potential allergens and others that say they may contain some of the "top 8" like nuts or dairy.

The other thing that freaks me out is this: though this certainly wasn't the woman's fault, I was given a list of potential nut-containing foods to avoid after my daughter was diagnosed. Granola--an ingredient of the allergenic Starbucks parfait--was one of those foods. I avoid granola like the plague. It's just too dicey--nuts are usually an ingredient. Why did this woman not do this? Well, she was in a hurry, she was busy, she was hungry. Unfortunately, when you're nut-allergic you can't just grab food like any other person without threat of a reaction. Carry food with you for those times when hunger strikes. That's another lesson we can learn from this.

Another thing: perhaps this woman hadn't had a reaction in awhile and had gotten a little complacent. So easy to do--I know I've been guilty of it myself. Unfortunately, you can't let your guard down. Ever. It's the only way to avoid a reaction. The story also doesn't say that she was carrying an EpiPen, either. I hope she was, but if she wasn't--another lesson learned. Don't leave home without it and teach your kids to do the same as they grow.

Starbucks is saying that the parfait was a "dessert item." For goodness' sake everybody, please avoid desserts if you have a nut allergy!!!! That's number one. In fact, Dr. Wood, author of Food Allergies for Dummies and a peanut-allergic individual himself, says that only once did he have a reaction from a "non-dessert" item. Every other time it was from cookies, a brownie or some other dessert. Unless you've made them yourself, please -- don't go near them!!

Vermont Nut Free now makes nut-free granola products and I think Enjoy Life Foods does as well. Maybe Starbucks should start stocking Enjoy Life items--maybe some already do.

Starbucks will no doubt receive a boatload of response about this and I hope they do the right thing. Giving someone a free "coffee card" isn't really going to cut it.

Just goes to show you that the food industry has a long way to go. So speak up everybody and remember--skip the desserts!


Jennifer B said...

Hey Jenny! Yeah that Starbucks thing is...disturbing on a bunch of levels. Of course, I think Starbucks handled it incredibly badly. I must say, though, you were thinking along the same lines I was...why did she risk it and take the word of the employee behind the counter?

I guess the good thing is she's okay now and this has brought attention to this very important problem. Plus, it's yet another reminder to us all that we have to constantly be on our guard! Thanks for highlighting this story.

Anonymous said...

You can see the granola at the top of that parfait even at this tiny resolution. Anyone with a nut allergy knows it's a bad idea to eat some granola. I don't care if it's listed on a label or not, you just know better.

Seeing as how she knows granola is not safe, and this label didn't say "Special nut-safe granola" I don't know how you can claim starbucks owes her anything.

If you go into a bar and eat a peanut a from a bowl of peanuts and go into shock - do you sue the bar for not saying "WARNING THESE PEANUTS CONTAIN PEANUTS"? No, because it's irrational to expect everyone everywhere to look out for you food allergies.

All this does is inspire EVERYONE to put more "may contain nuts" labels on things that PROBABLY don't, making it even HARDER for allergic people to find food they can eat.

Starbucks didn't do anything wrong and went out of its way to even offer a 'starbucks card'. I'm sure they don't offer one to every lactose intolerant customer who gets an upset tummy either.

Jenny said...

Dear Anonymous: Do you work for Starbucks???? :)

Seriously, if you read the story you can see that Starbucks should have labeled this food as "may contain nuts" even though granola is considered a high-risk food if you have a nut allergy. Why not label it? It makes no sense not to. Most food companies understand this...Starbucks certainly should.

This woman's near fatal reaction was a just a wee bit more severe than "an upset tummy" and I don't know if you know this, but lactose intolerance is not a life-threatening food allergy. A life-threatening food allergy can kill in minutes, as almost occured in the story I posted.

Attitudes like yours are common--the line gets blurred between life-threatening food allergy and food intolerance all too often. They may seem the same, but they're not. The public is still uninformed about this, as your post also illustrates.

I do agree with you on one thing: "overlabeling" of foods will limit the foods that food allergic people can eat, sometimes unnecessarily. I've posted about that problem before. But clearly too much food labeling is better than too little, especially when people's lives are in question.

As this Starbucks severe allergic reaction illustrates, a little food labeling could be a lifesaver.

Thanks for sharing.

Intl Maman said...

You forgot one lesson that could be learned from this as well. The article doesn't say she didn't have an epipen with her. I am sure EMS had one and she still missed 2 months of work and lost partial sight in one eye.

Epipens are great, when they work, which is not always. So scary.

As for granola, I make it at home often, completely nut free. We call it Lola Granola so my 4yo knows not to ever eat regular granola, but if I saw a label that didn't carry a may contain warning and didn't list nuts as an ingredient and asked about it, I would have given it to my daughter thinking, how thoughtful that someone finally thought to mass produce nut free granola! It isn't hard to make.

Labels need to be truthful. We have nothing else to go on.

again, scary

Jenny said...

Yes, Epi Pens don't always work so better to avoid high-risk foods when you're out and about -- like granola -- altogether.

If she didn't have her Epi with her and the EMT didn't have one either (they don't always) I shudder to think what might have happened.

Your post illustrates also that while labels can be helpful, they can also be misleading. Many people would think, as you did, that the label and/or cafe worker could be trusted about whether or not a food contained nuts.

That's why I urge all of us to be aware of "high-risk" foods and avoid them if at all possible. Unfortunately, right now, we still have to do most of the work with this.

I wish "Lola Granola" were served everywhere! :)

Thanks for your comments.