The Last Straw: Starbucks Ignores Allergy Risks in Straws

Starbucks plans to introduce straws made from corn — a grave risk to people with deadly corn allergies. Image credit Horia Varlan CCA 2.0

When Starbucks announced plans to discontinue drinking straws at all its locations I wondered about the allergy risks in its compostable substitutes. What exactly are these materials? Answers from Starbucks staffers yield bad news for people with corn allergy.

In case you doubt whether corn causes real allergies, it does. Corn allergy can also be life threatening and the ADA recognizes anaphylactic corn allergy as a disability. This tends to get less press than the eight most common food allergies and as a result this receives less consideration when businesses make strategic plans.

So yesterday after reading the news about the Starbucks corporate decision to discontinue traditional plastic drinking straws, I contacted the firm to seek more information. One of the first options available at their company website is a live chat so I opened that. When a staffer introduced herself as Cristel A I introduced myself as a food allergy blogger and explained the nature of my question, mentioning that she would probably want to refer this to Media Relations. Instead of offering their contact information Cristel set about answering the question herself (I even dropped a hint a second time that she might want to refer this query to the other department, but OK…she decided to answer).

Following are her relevant answers, verbatim:

I have found that effective July 1, 2018, plastic straws and serveware are banned in multiple markets across the U.S. To comply with these Food Packaging Requirements, Starbucks will offer compostable straws and serveware in our stores within these markets.

Fair enough, businesses have to comply with municipal regulations. What I want to find out is what’s in those “compostable straws and serveware.”

Some compostable straws and serveware are made from a compostable material called polyactic acid plastic, or PLA. This type of plastic is most commonly derived from corn and will break down when processed in the high-heat composting environment.

Wait, what?

Additionally, since PLA is most commonly derived from corn, it should not cause any allergic reactions.

Hold on there. Corn allergies are a thing.

A type of compostable plastic is derived from corn. Image credit USDA, public domain.
Other compostable straws are made from paper and serveware is made from wood. Availability varies by market.

Continuing verbatim with another copy/paste.

I have found that the markets where these compostable options are being used are: Seattle, Santa Cruz Co., Saint Louis Park, Malibu, Manhattan Beach, Surfside, FL, Alameda, and Minneapolis.

Double checking those locations, she seems to be talking about Seattle, Washington; Santa Cruz County, California; Saint Louis Park, Minnesota; Malibu, California; Manhattan Beach, California; Surfside, Florida; and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The inclusion of Saint Louis Park is odd because that city has no plastic straw ban; a few years ago it was on the verge of enacting a ban on single use plastic bags but backed away from that idea in 2015.

Cristel wasn’t making these decisions and she had answered these questions to the best of her ability, so I looked up Starbucks Media Contacts and left followup questions. Started by specifically identifying myself as a food allergy blogger, sought confirmation on the PLA plastics along with misgivings that the assurances about allergen safety may be inaccurate for people with deadly corn allergies, and requested details about the component materials in paper straws — such things often contain glue in addition to paper. This was their written reply in full:

Thanks for reaching out. Straws at Starbucks will be converted to an alternative material, such as paper or compostable plastic, depending on the infrastructure available market-by-market. As with any packaging we provide our customers, we will work to ensure our straw options meet our quality standards.

I reread this three times, slowly overcoming disbelief and realizing Starbucks Media Relations does not comprehend these questions.

There’s a grim joke in here about straws and a camel’s back. Image credit A.Savin, free license.

Let’s look into corn-derived PLA plastics. Cristel had made a minor misspelling: the full name for them is polylactic acid plastics. Drinking straws from this material do exist. Acompany named Ecoproducts lists a product EP-ST770: “Clear Wrapped Straws constructed entirely from corn plastic and 100% compostable.”

My real interest of course is allergen safety: are these sufficiently different from corn to become denatured of the raw material’s constituent allergen? A search of the PubMed database found hundreds of journal articles on PLA plastics but multiple search terms yielded no relevant results testing allergen responses to this type of plastic. The Starbucks claim that corn-based plastics are safe from allergy issues has no visible backing from peer reviewed science.

So I sought out members of the corn allergy community including a prominent blogger who goes by the moniker Corn Allergy Girl and a grassroots Facebook group for people with corn allergies, asking in both instances for comments on the record for publication. First to reply was a member of the social media group named Melissa Giles.

I’ve never had occasion to use a straw, but did recently buy some clamshells from a company called vegware. They look like plastic, but are made of corn. While packaging up some microgreens for sale, I found that even just touching the packaging was offensive to my body. I reacted with an asthma attack and a migraine that lasted 4 days. I should have known better, but have honestly never had a transdermal reaction of that magnitude. Usually I would get itchy and maybe have an asthma attack, but this instance was so much more severe. I love eco responsibility, and would never want to discourage the development of alternatives to plastic, but am terrified of what this will mean for my future, especially since labeling is not mandatory for packaging.

Corn Allergy Girl offers additional perspective. “Corn plastic straws and utensils are a big problem for most of those with corn allergy, yes.” After a few comments on the issue of positionable straws for people who suffer both corn allergy and limited mobility she writes the following.

Sensitivity to corn and corn products can vary widely among individuals, and even in a single person since our immune systems can change over time. In my distant past I could use utensils made from corn plastic as long as it didn’t get hot (the plastic is not stable at high temperatures), however I did not risk it on purpose- I just found out the hard way after a few months of using some plasticware at work that when I stirred my hot coffee with it, I reacted to the coffee. Even back then I would definitely not have even tried to knowingly drink liquid through a straw made from corn PLA. These days I can’t even touch most corn plastic for long without having some kind of reaction so I definitely wouldn’t try to eat from it, let along drink a liquid from it.
But there may be people out there who are corn allergic who are fine with using corn PLA straws as long as they don’t chew and swallow them. I am not one of them and I am in touch with a few thousand other corn allergy sufferers who are also unable to tolerate corn plastic.
Thanks for doing this work. My blog is about corn allergy but I stray into general disability advocacy plenty, and this straw ban conversation is so frustrating and exhausting from that standpoint. I hope that your article can reach a few more people that need it.

The related issues about plastic straws as a mobility aid have already been raised in respected venues. Those articulate discussions have my full support yet little has been written about the impact on people with immune disorders. A recent article in Pacific Standard devotes one sentence about food allergy problems with compostable straws, sourced to a protected Twitter account.

Let there be no mistake: I support shifting from single use plastics to compostable and reusable materials whenever feasible. Yet life threatening allergies follow the same biological mechanism regardless of whether the cause is a bee sting or an antibiotic or a peanut or another food allergen. People who suffer life threatening reactions from trace exposures have a reasonable need to know whether compostable plastic straws, forks, and other implements are made from their allergen. People with allergies already get a cup of water when they can’t trust the menu at a coffee shop; it gets that much harder when neither the straw or the cup can be trusted.