- Animal rights group PETA has spearheaded a months-long campaign against Starbucks for charging an extra fee for plant-based milks.
- The organisation, and other vegans and advocates, say the added cost is an unjustifiable “vegan tax” on people who avoid dairy for ethical, environmental, or medical reasons.
- Some companies have argued that non-dairy products are less cost-efficient, but as more people opt for plant-based options, some coffee shops are offering dairy-free options for no extra cost.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Starbucks has become the latest vegan battleground.
Activists have been posting themselves inside Starbucks coffee shops across the US and Canada with signs decrying the so-called “vegan tax,” which they have argued is discriminatory against more than just vegans. Recent sit-in protests have been held from coast to coast, including in Arlington, Virginia;San Diego, California;Portland, Oregon; and New York City, New York.
In New York City, a typical Starbucks latte comes in at around $US4.78 (according to an online menu), but when swapped with soy, almond, or coconut milk, that price rises to over $US5.30. In the Midwest, you’ll pay just over $US4 for a regular latte, plus an extra 60 cents for nondairy milk, making the vegan version 15% more expensive.
Although it may not seems like much, it’s prompted PETA, the animal rights organisation, to announce in late 2019 that it had purchased stock in Starbucks – therefore earning a seat at the company’s annual shareholder meeting, where PETA representatives plan to call for an end to extra charges on dairy-free milks.
“Many coffee drinkers are lactose intolerant, and everyone should be intolerant of cruelty to cows, which is why charging extra for vegan milks is hard to swallow,” PETA wrote in a press release.
According to research from the National Institute of Health, 65% of adults have some form of lactose intolerance. “It affects all different people in different ways,” Julia Feliz Brueck, author and advocate who runs the website Veganism of Colour, told Insider in an interview. “The extra charges are racist since a majority of people of colour can’t digest lactose. It’s ableist, because it ignores food allergies. And it penalizes people for valuing the environment.”
Non-dairy milk has historically been more expensive, but that may be changing
Starbucks has been offering non-dairy milk since 1997, when it first made soy milk available in its stores, according to the company website. Next came coconut milk in 2015 and, most recently, almond milk in 2016. The company began charging around 50 to 60 cents more for soy milk in 2012, Wired reported, and has been facing backlash ever since.
Starbucks did not respond to a request for comment on this story. But part of the justification for the extra fee has been that plant-based milk is generally less common in orders than dairy milk. As a result, these milks often sold in smaller containers that are less cost-effective, said Eden Abramowicz, director of coffee at Revelator, a regional coffee chain, in an interview with Cooking Light.
In many cases, it may be that the soy or almond milk in your mocha isn’t exactly the same as what you’d find at a supermarket. Coffee shops often use special formulations designed to create a better texture of foam for that perfect cappuccino or latte. As result, those non-dairy milks might cost more than a mass-market grocery brand.
What’s more, the dairy industry is heavily subsidized by the government – with a $US22.2 billion cushion in 2015 alone, Business Insider previously reported.
“Distribution of alt milks is extremely limited compared to dairy, and when it comes to the higher-end alternative selections, the price point typically resembles a retail price versus a wholesale deal,” Abramowicz told Cooking Light.
Peet’s Coffee, a US chain based in California, also charges more for alternative milk options, according to their website, because the ingredients cost more.
Some cafes have stopped charging extra as demand for dairy-free milk soars
More people are opting for non-dairy milk, whether they’re vegan, lactose intolerant, or just prefer the taste, plant-based registered dietitian and performance nutritionist Cynthia Sass told Insider, citing data that nearly half of Americans reported buying both dairy and non-dairy milk.
“Many people, not just vegans, are opting for plant milk for a number of reasons, including health, environmental concerns, and wanting to consume fewer or no animal-based foods,” Sass said.
“Mass-produced soy products have dropped in price to come close to standard dairy options, while artisanal, experimental nut options have skyrocketed,” Abramowicz told Cooking Light.
As trends shift, and non-dairy milk becomes less niche, it may no longer make sense to buy more costly small containers.
Some companies have started offering plant-based milk alternatives at no added cost – Pret A Manger confirmed via an email to Insider that they’re offering free nondairy milk as of January, and Stumptown has reportedly also jumped on the free non-dairy bandwagon.
But currently there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on whether to charge extra for alt milk, and if so, how much. Barista Magazine‘s roundup of non-dairy prices from 2019 varies widely, from free to $US1.50.
For people with lactose intolerance, non-dairy milk isn’t just a trend
While a splash of oat or almond milk may seem like a luxurious add-on, for many it’s a medically necessary alternative to dairy milk.
Symptoms of lactose intolerance can range from mildly inconvenient to downright uncomfortable, including bloating, gas, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea.
Lactose intolerance affects more than half of American adults, many of whom are people of colour, including those with Asian or African heritage.
Feliz Brueck said it’s important to recognise that vegan advocacy from organisations like PETA can often gloss over deeper root issues, including racism and classism, in campaigning against companies like Starbucks.
“I’m more concerned about the people who can’t even afford Starbucks,” Feliz Brueck said. “Single issue activism is not effective or efficient. We need to focus on the most marginalised.”
Activists say the fee is a barrier to people trying to be more environmentally-friendly
Industrial dairy farming has had a dramatic impact on the environment and our carbon footprint by using up a lot of land and water, and contributing to methane gas levels in the atmosphere.
Although nondairy milks can be highly processed and also costly for the environment, particularly almond milk, Sass said giving people more options free-of-charge could lead to more planet-friendly decisions.
“If coffee shops stopped charging more for plant milks more people would order plant versions, which would have a positive impact on the planet, and in turn, influence our economy,” Sass told Insider.
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