Conservationists Smell a Rat in Peet's Deal

Across California, wildlife advocates concerned about the proposed buyer of Peet's are turning their back on the popular brewer.

News that Peet's Coffee & Tea, whose is here in Alameda, 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.

Scientific Evidence

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.

Boycott Threat

 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.

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SunFlowers August 03, 2012 at 11:45 PM
Michael August 04, 2012 at 01:30 AM
It could be worse. It might have been the German company that developed Zyklon B. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zyklon_B
Jeff Mark August 05, 2012 at 07:39 AM
Maybe it's just 30 years of brand loyalty, but I agree with Kate. It's a little early to ostracize a company with such an encouraging history and record. BTW, Peet's didn't "sell itself to" anyone. It's a publicly-traded corporation, for whom someone bid 40% more than its apparent current value. I think it's much more likely that these guys will buy it and break it up, 80s-style. But that does sound a bit like someone spinning in his grave, doesn't it?
Tom Brody August 05, 2012 at 01:14 PM
It can be argued tht warfarin and other rodenticides that are used in agriculture are good for human society. According to NC Stenseth et al (2003) Front Ecol. Environ., vol.1, no.7, every year in Asia, rats consume an equivalent of food crops that could feed 200 million people, and in Africa, rodents consume 15% of the rice crop. According to T.P. Salmon (2008) 23rd, Vertebr. Pest. Conf. University of California at Davis, rodents contribute to contamination of food crops with feces, including with feces that contain the deadly E.coli o157:H7 (deadly to humans). It is the case, therefore, that those who prefer to eliminate the use of rodenticides are, in fact, advocates of hunger of deadly infections. The take-home lesson is that, the current issues, and the current discussion, is one that is not black and white, but is instead characterized by gray areas. Before condemning the use of rodenticides per se, it might be wiser to consider the number of people that cannot be fed due to rodent-induced crop losses, and to consider the number of illnesses caused by rodent droppings.
Tom Brody August 05, 2012 at 02:04 PM
The following is an additional argument AGAINST using rodenticides on food crops. First of all, please note that all plants, as well as all plant foods, are devoid in vitamin B12. Second of all, please note that folate deficiency is prevalent in the US population, as well as on a global basis. Third, please note that vitamin B12 makes folate a more effective vitamin, that is, it is the case that vitamin B12 deficiency causes a defect in folate action in the body. Fourth, please note that rat feces are an excellent of vitamin B12, as well as other B vitamins, and also of vitamin K. To conclude, advocates of eliminating rodenticides from agriculture can use the following argument to serve their needs, "Eliminating rodenticides will result in an increase in rat feces in the human food supply of plant foods, thereby supplementing plant foods with vitamin B12, a vitamin that has been proven to be missing from all plants and provent to be missing from all plant foods. The consequence of eliminating rodenticides, such as Warfarin, from plant agriculture, will be an increase in levels of vitamin B12 and other vitamins, such as folate, in our plant foods, and a consequent reduction in anemia, and possible also in a reduction in neural tube defects." And that is the argument in favor of eliminating rodenticides.


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