News that Peet's Coffee & Tea by global investor Joh. A. Benckiser caused barely a stir last week.
Peet's started as a tiny coffee shop in North Berkeley in 1966 — a dark-roasting, small-batching rebel outpost in a corporate coffee world ruled by the likes of Maxwell House and Folgers. The company is still seen as counter-cultural — despite the fact that it went public in 2001 and now boasts 196 cafes in six states and sells its products both in grocery stores and through the mail. But only a few "Peetnicks" — that's Peet's-speak for die-hard fans — complained on the Peet's Facebook page about a foreign conglomerate taking over the Bay Area icon. More expressed relief that Starbuck's — long rumored to be eyeing Peet's for a takeover — isn't the buyer.
All that changed this week, when conservationists around California started saying that if the sale goes through, Peet's will be selling its sustainable soul to an environmental devil.
The problem? JAB is a stakeholder in Reckitt-Benckiser, which manufactures, among dozens of personal care and household products, the rat poison d-Con. And d-Con is made from brodifacoum, one of four rodenticides the EPA banned in 2008, due to the "unreasonable adverse effects" they have on children, pets, and wildlife.
Known as "non-specific targets," that wildlife includes great horned owls, barn owls, Eastern screech owls, golden eagles, bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, Cooper's hawks, foxes, mountain lions, bobcats and fishers, who die from "secondary poisoning" when they eat poisoned rats and mice.
Over the last decade, dozens of studies and surveys have documented the very real risk of injury or death posed by these anti-coagulant chemicals, which can result in fatal hemorrhaging when ingested. (You can read about research on wildlife and rodenticides in this Scientific American article.) Still, when the EPA enacted the ban in 2008, it gave the companies until June 2011 to stop manufacturing and marketing the products. Most of the companies complied. Reckitt-Benckiser and two others, however, sued the EPA instead and have continued to sell their products while the lawsuit makes its way through the courts.
A half dozen Bay Area communities — including San Francisco, Albany, Richmond, Berkeley and Marin County — have begun programs in which stores voluntarily take these products off their shelves, rather than waiting for the case to be resolved. But across the country, d-Con remains one of the best-selling rodenticides on the market.
Calls for Action
Environmentalists in the Bay Area and beyond are horrified that Peet's — whose list of corporate values includes a commitment to "sustainable practices" — would sell itself to a company invested in a manufacturer of a rat poison that poses risks to children and animals.
"We've spent the better part of the last few years trying to make a clear public case about the impact of these anti-coagulant rodenticides on non-target species," says Allen Fish, director for the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory in Marin. "We've seen bird after bird killed by the poisons and I'm absolutely positive there are hundreds of cases more where the carcass wasn't tested for exposure to rodenticides. It's a very serious issue."
Lisa Owens Viani, director of Raptors are the Solution, which works with a dozen local and national conservationist groups in advocating for using raptors, rather than poison, for rodent control, sent a letter to Peet's board of directors, asking them to either reconsider the deal or pressure Reckitt to stop selling d-Con immediately
"They told us that they 'admired our passion,' but declined our request to meet with us," she says. The organization is also asking people to send letters to Peet's CEO, Patrick O'Dea, asking for the same two actions.
Some conversationists are even willing to vote with their coffee dollars.
"If you care about child safety, wildlife and the safety of your beloved pets, I ask that you join Raptors Are the Solution in a boycott of Peet's," Maggie Sergio, a Marin-based enviromentalist, wrote in the Huffington Post earlier this week. Chris Clarke, an environmental writer in Joshua Tree, made a similar pledge, writing, "I've had my last cup of Peet's coffee. We're through, Peet's. I still love you, but I can't stand your new partner. Call me if you call it off. You deserve better."
A spokesperson for JAB said that as an investment firm, the company has little relationship to Reckitt itself. GGO's Allen Fish understands that. But, he too, is among those swearing off Peet's coffee.
"I've been drinking drinking Peet's since 1978," he says. "It's hard to stop. It's a habit. But I can't support Peet's right now. The connection between Benckiser and the Reckitt-Benckiser, the mothership of d-Con, is just too incredible for me. I almost wish Starbucks had been the buyer."
That may not be an impossible dream. Bloomberg News reported Tuesday that Starbuck's, JM Smucker (maker of Folger's), or Krafts Foods (maker of Maxwell House and Yuban) could still make a counter bid for Peet's. In the meantime, "Alfred E. Peet is rolling in his grave," one woman wrote on the Facebook page for Raptors are the Solution. "It's really a bummer."
Peet's did not respond to requests for comments on the situation.