Is Starbucks Japan Milk Radioactive? Shhhh….It’s a Secret!!!

Radiation is being found throughout the food chain in Japan, including milk products. It’s therefore reasonable to ask a company that sells milk-based products to ensure that its food supply is radiation free. I asked Starbucks Japan. They ain’t tellin’.

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan precipitated a nuclear meltdown and major release of radiation from the Fukushima Dai Ichi reactor. Since that event, radioactive cesium has been detected in many branches of the Japanese food chain. In the early days, this radiation was mostly on vegetables and could be washed off.

Now, however, this contaminated vegetable matter is finding its way into the feed used for livestock. As a result, radiation is accumulating in byproducts of your friendly neighborhood cow, including beef and yoghurt due to contaminated milk (these links go to the English pages of a Japanese watchdog site). If you tend to be unlucky and you eat these foods, you could also be ingesting a few becquerels of radiation.

When it comes to radiation, the most dangerous thing you can do is to eat it. A few cesium radionuclides stuck in your body can ruin your whole day. In fact, it can end your life. With enough of these radioactive particles irradiating the surrounding cells, you can develop a cancer — particularly if they are stuck in one part of your body for any length of time. And let’s not forget heart disease, Alzheimer’s, autism and other diseases that have been linked to radiation damage as a cause or accelerator. So there really is no acceptable level when it comes to the radiation in food, in spite of what the Japanese government would have us believe.

And this brings us to Starbucks Japan. Last week I ordered a cappuccino at one of the Chiba City locations. I half jokingly asked if the milk was safe. The barrista said, “大丈夫でしょう”…It’s probably alright, isn’t it? She looked at the carton and found that the milk was from Ibaraki.  

Hmmm….Ibaraki. That’s right between me and the Fukushima reactor. As the radiation map below shows,  Ibaraki has enough radiation hotspots to make me wonder if the cows that are squirting out my cappuccino milk aren’t just a tad radioactive.

Don’t raise your cows near those yellow dots! 🙂

Next, I asked the girl if the milk was, you know, safe and not going to give me cancer. Specifically, I asked if Starbucks Japan had issued any briefs that they had checked their milk supply. I was looking for some guarantee that the milk was safe. “I don’t know,” she said. “The company hasn’t told us anything.”

Since they don’t know at the stores, I looked to the company for answers. On both their Japanese and English website pages, there is no mention at all about food safety. They do, however, provide Investor Relations data right in their top-level news feed (in red, below). But no specific information on what they are doing to ensure radiation-free cappuccino.

The Starbucks home page is great for investors curious about the latest blend.

So I think…”Well, maybe they had the information on the website, but it’s been taken down… Ok, I’ll write and ask them directly.” I looked, but all I could find were phone numbers you can call between 10 and 6PM, Mon-Fri and a FAX number (who the heck uses a FAX anymore?). But there is no online customer support at Starbucks Japan. There’s just no way to email them with a concern.

I think this has to do with the fact that the written word carries much more weight than conversation. It’s not easy to dodge a written complaint or question. A phone call, on the other hand, is easy to dodge. The operators just tell you, “We are not at liberty to give that information” (The answer I got from Saizeriya when I called to ask about a carbo count). While a wasted phone call just pisses people off and is lost forever, a written letter can be posted, well, on a blog for example. Anyway, I wanted to get this as a written record, so I didn’t call.

Next up was Twitter. Starbucks Japan has a Twitter feed that they use to tell you of new blends and other bling they have in stores. Emphasis on the word tell. They don’t seem to use their Twitter account as a way to dialogue with customers. Nevertheless, I sent the following two direct tweets a week ago. I have had no reply… I guess the idea is that if they stay realllllly quiet about the radiation, I’ll forget and not ask again.

Below is the first tweet. In it, I explain that I asked a staff member about the possibility of cesium in the milk. I then ask Starbucks Japan if their milk is safe and if they have tested it (click image to supersize).

This next tweet was just because I hate to be ignored. This tweet gives a link to news of the radioactive, glow-in-the-dark yoghurt being sold in Japan. And I ask, again, is Starbucks Japan milk OK?

Still no reply…I’m starting to feel like the stinky kid in class that nobody wants to talk to…

So, as it stands, the official line on food safety for Starbucks Japan seems to be…they have no official line. Instead, they take the government’s position which is if they mostly ignore the issue and keep people busy with new products, that the radiation issue will be overlooked. Profits will not suffer. People might get sick, but it’s not really the government’s or companies’ or farmers’ faults…it’s just an inescapable fact that we have to live with radiation.

Well, in fact, we don’t have to. We can test the food chain more comprehensively. But it will cost a lot of money…assuming that people push companies and the government hard enough to take some profit and channel it to this form of consumer protection and information.

Starbucks Japan is not alone in having this kind of “push” marketing philosophy — the philosophy that the company just feeds you the information they feel like giving you… and you can either accept what they say and buy the product, or you can fuck off. In fact, this strategy is the norm in Japan. Many companies simply do not support online written dialogue with customers. Hell, Gold’s Gym Japan wouldn’t even give me a contact email address when I asked at the gym. It’s like the most well guarded secret in the company. Service-based industries in Japan are, ironically, the worst for customer service.

To Starbucks’ credit, they do have customer input forms you can handwrite and submit in the stores, but this is still not the same thing as being truly open to customer concerns. Most customers don’t just want to tell a concern, they want the company to answer with what they plan to do to fix the problem. But not everybody wants to spend 20 minutes trying to call the one and only customer service line available in Japan. In any case, a phone call can only yield stock answers. Fielding a customer concern usually means somebody has to check facts, talk to others in the company, and sometimes produce results. This is not likely to happen when speaking with a hourly-employed customer-service rep.

Twitter and Facebook is now where most savvy companies dialogue with loyal customers, although that has yet to catch on in Japan. A look at the Starbucks Japan page on Facebook shows that customers use it to post photos of coffee, etc. All the posts seem positive. This is typical in Japan. People just don’t seem to bitch online like they do everywhere else. Or maybe they do, but Starbucks Japan deletes negative posts. Who knows. But where Starbucks Japan clearly fails is that there seems to be no digital portal at all for asking in writing about product safety.

Starbucks Japan, if you are reading this, I know from one location manager that in-store sales of milk-based products have suffered due to concerns about radiation in milk. Why do you think this is? Of course it’s because people are worried. And why are they worried? Because they have no concrete information.

Customers want to trust you…but you first have to TALK to your customers frankly, honestly and directly. Provide clear and up-to-date information on your website. If you have spent money to regularly test all of your milk supplies, then TELL US. If you haven’t been checking your milk supply, then it’s time to start!

If you show people that you are LEGITIMATELY testing your products and not just hoping that the government will do it for you (they won’t), then people will TRUST you and BUY your products. Don’t just hide from the customer’s voice and hope it will all go away. The voice will remain. But customers might not.

And stop ignoring customers with legitimate concerns!!

Finally, for the record, I’ve been a loyal Starbucks patron for years. In fact, I’m sitting outside of my local Starbucks as I write this. So I hope you do the right thing and help protect me and your other loyal customers from the increasing threat of radiation in Japan.

Thanks for reading. 🙂

Let’s all try to pull our heads from the sand and our asses when it comes to the radiation issue 🙂