The Starbucks “upcharge” news was fake, but did it raise important questions about dairy and justice issues?


A ‘press image’ from the fake Starbucks release which sought to raise questions about the coffee giant’s unfair plant-based milk upcharge.

OPINION: Starbucks made the staggering announcement to remove its plant-based milk surcharge and instead apply it to cows’ milk to combat what it called “dietary racism"…or did it? The news turned out to be fake, but did it highlight discrimination against those who cannot stomach dairy?

We won’t deny it. When we saw the headlines from other vegan media, we fell for the fake news that Starbucks was to not only drop its 70 per cent plant milk ‘upcharge’, but apply it to cows’ milk instead to tackle “dietary racism” perpetrated against the majority of the world’s population who are lactose intolerant. It seemed too enormous a bombshell to be true, and sadly it was, turning out to be a spoof initiative by dairy-free living proponents Switch4Good and brandjacking experts the Yes Men.

The complex charade started with a spoof press release announcing the fake news; a well-produced video launching its “Justice Cup” campaign on a fake Starbucks Cares website; a fake denial release issued from fake Starbucks, and a final campaign reveal video. They even went as far as to produce realistic discount vouchers for supporters to take into branches of Starbucks to remove the plant-based upcharge from their drinks.

Had the announcement been real, it would have undoubtedly drawn anger from many within the dairy industry including farmers and producers of dairy products, and given rise to accusations of pandering to the ‘woke’ generation. But rather than weigh in on an apparent culture war by calling dairy racist, per se, the fake Starbucks campaign sought to raise awareness of the undeniable fact that most of the world can’t digest dairy milk, and that charging more for lactose-free, ethical plant-based milk is just downright unjust.

“While sadly it isn’t true that Starbucks is changing its policy, what is true is that profiting off of people of colour who are only trying to maintain their health is systemic racism,” said Dr Milton Mills, an urgent care physician in Washington DC who has published research on racial bias in US federal nutrition policy. “By the numbers, more people of colour are forced to pay extra, which makes it not just an upcharge but an unfair and racially targeted overcharge.”

According to the fake press release published yesterday and sent to eager press outlets, 65 per cent of the world’s population is lactose intolerant, a condition that disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. The symptoms of lactose intolerance can be severe, including stomach pain, diarrhoea, gas, bloat, nausea and other gastrointestinal distress.

Double-checking their figures, data from the US health body the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), citing research published in the Lancet, actually puts this figure higher at 68 per cent. Ghana, Malawi, South Korea and Yemen have the highest prevalences of lactose malabsorption at 100 per cent of the population, compared to Northern and Central Europe where intolerance is at only five per cent.

In the US, where the fake campaign said the new pricing would first take effect, 36 per cent of the population cannot digest milk. There is, therefore, much merit to the argument that the upcharge on plant-based dairy milk alternatives, which do not contain lactose, is indeed a discriminatory penalty imposed on BIPOC customers and those who choose not to consume cows’ milk on ethical grounds.

Never miss an article

Stay up-to-date with the weekly Surge newsletter to never miss an article, media production or investigation. We respect your privacy.

“Starbucks is taking the initiative to apologise for having perpetuated deeply rooted systemic inequalities in our pricing of plant-based milk, and we commit to offering a more equitable experience for the global majority, which suffers from lactose intolerance,” said ‘Blaine Stevenson’, a completely fictitious Starbucks equality innovations director. “Placing the burden of non-dairy upcharges on our BIPOC customers has amounted to inadvertent dietary racism, and as a corporate leader it’s incumbent on us to make a switch for good.”

The above statement is of course not actually from Starbucks, but the points made are arguably still valid. Poking fun at Starbucks’ penchant for seizing any opportunity to enhance its marketing appeal, the slick-but-faux campaign included the launch of a branded “Justice Cup” aimed at people who want to show others that they care about justice issues. (Including this was a stroke of genius as it is the kind of thing Starbucks would do, and so cringeworthy as to be plausible.) Satirical woke-washing aside, the move away from unfair pricing of plant-based milk would certainly have benefitted other issues including environmental and non-human justice.

“Encouraging customers to try non-dairy options at a fair price - and implementing an added charge on dairy - moves Starbucks closer to its goal of cutting carbon, water, and waste footprints in half by 2030,” said fake-Starbucks in its spoof-but-salient statement. “By relieving some of the pressures placed on the earth by the resource-intensive dairy industry, Starbucks is taking strong steps toward becoming a resource-positive company that takes less and gives more to the planet in every aspect of its business.”

A graphic from the fake Starbuck’s announcement, but 68 per cent of the world’s population is indeed lactose intolerant and most are BIPOC.

Plant-based alternatives such as oat and almond milk have been gaining ground thanks to the rise in veganism and growing awareness of health and environmental concerns among consumers. However, the premium pricing of plant-based options has long been cited as an argument against switching. In 2020, when asked about eliminating the upcharge, former (and real-life) Starbucks COO Roz Brewer said: "While there's no single factor in pricing decisions we expect costs to come down as the supply chain for plant-based options matures.” If real-Starbucks ever actually does do away with the surcharge, it would both reduce the cost barrier to the uptake of plant-based options and drive down prices in other coffee outlets through competition.

Regardless of whether dairy milk really is a social justice issue or not, it is undeniable that the dairy industry is both unsustainable from an environmental perspective and guilty of the most heinous acts of non-human exploitation. Raising cows to produce milk consumes huge volumes of water and areas of land, is a leading emitter of carbon, and cow excrement introduces toxic levels of ammonia into local waterways giving rise to a “nitrogen crisis” in countries such as the Netherlands. The toll that the dairy industry takes on non-human animals cannot be understated - mother cows are forcefully inseminated and their babies taken from them year after year, all so that we can steal their milk, and male calves are shot soon after birth or sold off for beef at a young age.

Whatever one’s personal reason for ditching dairy, be it health, ethics, social justice or the environment, the combination of all these factors makes the consumption and support for the dairy industry inarguably untenable.

  • UPDATED 10/12/21 to include Switch4Good and Yes Men campaign reveal details.

Andrew Gough is Media and Investigations Manager for Surge.

Your support makes a huge difference to us. Supporting Surge with a monthly or one-off donation enables us to continue our work to end all animal oppression.