When Tahmar Chung, 21, a student at the University of Toronto with a dairy allergy, ordered a green tea Frappuccino with soy milk from a Starbucks in the GTA in 2018, she did not expect what followed.
“They made my soy drink with milk,” Chung said. “I thought it tasted funny so I asked her about it and she was a thousand per cent sure. I had a cold, so I thought my taste was just off. Long story short, my body did not agree.”
Chung described feeling stomach pains and issues with digestion, a common symptom of a dairy allergy in adults.
Starbucks is recognized for their seasonal drinks. September is known for the infamous pumpkin spice latte; November, the chestnut praline latte, and, when we transition into winter there is the peppermint mocha. However, those with food allergies and sensitivities may not be enjoying the sweet and comforting fun of the steamy espresso drinks.
This Toronto student is not the only one who’s had a concern about allergens at Starbucks. In 2011 a Georgia woman, Brenda Hart Neihouse, started a petition that called attention to the risk of cross-contamination of allergens and for the coffeehouse to have dedicated apparatus for dairy and non-dairy milks.
Concern began to grow in 2016 subsequent to the introduction of almond milk to Starbucks list of cow’s milk substitutes, and peaked in July 2018, after a post by a barista in Washington, D.C. alerting patrons that Starbucks would be removing the labels off of it’s pitchers, meaning dairy and non-dairy beverages would no longer be made in designated containers.
There has been an increase in complaints and concerns about cross-contact regarding Starbuck’s dairy and non-dairy milk.
Starbucks confirmed the changes in a July 2018 statement emailed to the Miami Herald .
“Starting July 10, Starbucks removed dairy labels from steaming and blending pitchers. Because our beverages are made using shared equipment (steaming wands, blender pitcher, rinsers) the removal of the sticker is more transparent and realistic of how the pitchers are used. As a beverage standard, our baristas use a rinsed pitcher for each handcrafted beverage.”
Considering Starbucks is the most popular coffee house chain in the world and provides one of the most diverse milk options in the city, this statement is unsettling for many Torontonians.
Despite the growing movement away from dairy products, there is a scarcity of milk alternatives in coffee chains across the city.
“It’s happened to me before. Usually, they just make a new drink, but this barista was super insistent that she made the right drink,” Chung said.
Some experts say it is possible that Chung’s barista was correct and had made her soy Frappuccino to order, but the drink had come into contact with dairy through cross-contact. According to the Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) website, “Even a trace of food on a spoon or spatula that is invisible to us can cause an allergic reaction.” Utensils used to prepare a meal or drink must be washed with hot water and soap after touching the allergen to avoid cross-contact.
While the Health Canada website states a policy for prepackaged foods to have a precautionary statement that is “truthful, clear and non-ambiguous” neither Health Canada nor Toronto Public Health have confirmed the requirements for restaurants, such as Starbucks, to make the risk of allergens and cross-contact apparent to consumers.