Caffe Nero has found itself at the centre of a media storm this week after reports emerged it has banned milk from the badger cull areas. Despite attempts at clarification a number of key questions remain.
Caffe Nero has insisted its controversial position was a direct response to ‘serious and credible threats’ to its staff.
Others have described it as a ‘spineless’ capitulation to small minority of people who think nothing of intimidation and threats to achieve their ends. And some have put it down to blind panic.
The answer lies, probably, in a combination of the three.
The controversy arose from a seemingly innocuous email sent on May 21 to the coffee chain by badger activists calling themselves ‘Steve and Rose’ asking if the company sourced milk ‘from farms involved in the killing of Badgers’.
In response Caffe Nero’s head of customer services said it had ‘instructed its partners supplying to stores which are situated around the Cull Zone areas to supply milk from farms outside of the zone’.
Caffe Nero was due to be targeted by activists during an anti-austerity march on June 20. Stop the Cull had posted a map on Facebook of all the chain’s Central London locations so people could ‘do lots of Caffe’s in one day’.
But on hearing the news of Caffe Nero’s stance on the cull from Steve and Rose, Stop the Cull’s Jay Tiernan contacted the Mail on Sunday, which ran the article that created such a huge backlash against the coffee chain among farmers and beyond.
The coffee chain has stressed its decision was not taken because of its stance on badger culling, insisting it is ‘not for or against this practice’ but was taken to protect its staff who had been subject to ‘threats of violence and disruption’ from activists. “As a first priority we must guarantee the safety of our people and customers,” it said.
But many connected to the farming industry, politician industry and others remained unconvinced, pointing out the coffee chain had spinelessly bowed down/given in/surrendered/capitulated to the dubious tactics deployed by a minority opposed to the cull.
It was in the cull zones, where over two years of the pilots farmers have stood firm in the face of some deeply unpleasant intimidation, that Caffe Nero’s stance has caused the most hurt.
The issue has turned into something of a PR disaster for the company as it faced calls for a boycott of its stores from farmers, the condemnation of MPs and numerous column inches condemning its actions. Plus some unwelcome questions about its own ethics, notably over its taxation arrangements.
Part of Caffe Nero’s problem has been the lack of information it has been prepared to divulge as the storm has blown up around, symptomatic of a metaphorical rabbit in the media headlights. This has generated suspicion among those who felt the talk of threats might be a veil for some poor PR decisions.
After a couple of statements talking generally of threats to staff, the company did a little more detail in response to questions from Farmers Guardian.
A spokeswoman said ‘specific individuals’ within the company were targeted with ‘serious and credible threats’ via social media and personal email addresses, as well as London stores being singled out in the June 20 Austerity March.
“Initially, we were concerned not to escalate these threats and alarm our stores. In response to serious and credible threats made against individuals, the police were then contacted. We are continuing to liaise with them regarding the more general threats against our stores and team members,” the spokeswoman said.
This is not entirely clear, least of all to the company itself. “We are at a loss as to why our stores have been the target of protestors when we are not part of the debate,” the company said.
After all there are many bigger buyers of milk in the UK in both the retail and catering sectors.
Stop the cull said it had it had been ‘handing out leaflets’ outside the chain’s stores for two years but did not say why, adding that it had also targeted Starbucks and Sainsbury’s.
One of the enduring mysteries of the saga is what Caffe Nero’s so-called ban actually means in practice. Its initial statement to Steve and Rose said referred to stores, around the cull zone, rather than milk.
It said it had had ‘instructed its partners supplying to stores which are situated around the Cull Zone areas to supply milk from farms outside of the zone’.
Did this suggest a misplaced belief that its stores in Gloucestershire and Somerset, simply sourced their milk from local suppliers rather than larger distribution points?
It later added 98 per cent of its ilk supply ‘came from outside the affected area’. But did this refer to processors or farms?
Caffe Nero has now sought to clarify this, telling Farmers Guardian, of the total volume of milk purchased by Caffe Nero, only 2 per cent ‘is processed and used in stores in and around the cull zones’. So it does not refer to farms.
In that case, what does it actually mean as far as dairy farms in the cull zones are concerned? The company spokesperson said: “Caffe Nero sources its milk from a number of dairy processors, some of which are able to actively source from outside of the cull zone. Where possible we have instructed our supply partners to do so. No suppliers have been dropped.”
Note the line 'where possible', and the closing gambit - “No suppliers have been dropped”. All suggesting little, if anything, has actually changed on the ground.
A PR storm about very little?
There have been all sorts of suggestions Caffe Nero is looking for a way out of this, not least from the company itself, which said it was working with the NFU ‘to find a suitable outcome for all parties’.
NFU deputy president Minette Batters said the NFU was having ongoing discussion with the chain and she was ‘very confident they will revisit this’.
Yet the company’s public statements have yet to include any firm suggestion of a retraction. Its chairman Gerry Ford was in no mood to appease farmers when confronted on his doorstep by journalists, accusing them of being ‘pretty pathetic’ when asked if he had a message for hard-pressed farmers, although his response might have been more to do with the journalists than the farmers.
The June 20 protests still loom large in Caffe Nero’s thoughts. It might be unrealistic to expect any sort of definitive statement until after that date. If at all.
The furore sparked by Caffe Nero has inevitably led to questions about the stance of other major milk buyers, notably Sainsbury’s, named as being next in the firing line by Stop the Cull.
All the indications so far are there that none will be following suit. In fact, it might be that the backlash against Caffe Nero has hardened one or two opinions the other way.
Farmers Guardian asked the big supermarkets where they stood. See their responses here.
They acknowledged the strongly held views on both sides but stressed it was a policy put in place by Government and they were content to abide by that. Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose stated they did not want to penalise farmers as a result of their geographical location in the cull zone.
The story has also put the spotlight on Jay Tiernan - or Gamul Eboe to give him his real name - for years the spokesman of the anti-badger cull activist movement.
Mr Tiernan, or Eboe, has appeared all over the media over the past week, including on Newsnight and the Politics Show, seeking to justify the tactics used by activists both against the likes of Caffe Nero and farmers in the cull zone.
There was no ‘menace’, he claimed on Newsnight, in the threats to Caffe Nero, despite suggesting they would have expected to have received ‘daubs on their boarded up windows’ had the June 20 protests gone ahead.
On the same show, he played down claims of intimidation during the Gloucestershire and Somerset badger culls.
"No-one has had a brick thrown through their window, cars haven’t been set on fire. These terrible things aren’t happening,” he said.
The experiences of those in the cull zones who have spoken to Farmers Guardian have been very different (tales, for example, of balaclava-clad activists following farmers’ daughters around in the cars at night, shining torches through windows throughout the night, trespassing and causing damage, plus threatening phone calls, letters and emails and the publication of names and addresses online).
Often Mr Tiernan, who was handed a suspended jails sentence earlier this year for breaching an NFU injunction during last autumn/s cull, has sought to present a respectable face, although his own past has now come under scrutiny.
An article in the Mail, for example, linked him to the Stop Huntingdon Life Sciences group which ran a violent hate campaign against the laboratory’s workers in the late 1990s. Eboe was arrested in 2001 for protesting against HLS, it said.
It added, in 2003, he was handed an eight-month suspended sentence after submitting claims for £3,000 to the Department for Education for training students when he was actually on holiday in Greece.
It has also been pointed out that Gamul Eboe was listed on page 6 of this Animal Liberation Front leaflet dating back to around 1999 as one of the group’s supporters serving time in prison.
Mr Tiernan has responded to the Mail article, explaining his change of name was down to a decision to ‘’reject the patriarchal tradition’ of continuing with his father’s surname and adopt his grandmother’s maiden name instead.
He added: “I have been frequently arrested and charged for quite a few minor and not so minor offences; obstruction of the highway, aggravated trespass, criminal damage (once for cutting a fence, once for putting a sticker on a bank wall) theft of a beagle from a laboratory animal breeder (for which I went to prison) and notoriously for “obtaining money by deception” from the government which I siphoned back into the Animal Rights movement AND into my own lifestyle.
“I have helped run and been instrumental in setting up quite a few campaigns including “save the hill grove cats” and the “huntingdon death sciences campaign” which turned into SHAC.
“I stopped campaigning in 2001 after a fellow campaigner was nearly killed by an off-duty police officer during a protest that her and I were involved in. I only re-started campaigning when I heard about the badger cull in 2012.”
While Caffe Nero’s stance will undoubtedly have hurt those who have been subject to threats and intimidation in the culls, some good has come out of it.
There has been much positive media coverage condemning the stance taken by Caffe Nero, sendin out the message there is not much to be admired in giving in to threats and intimidation.
It has focused minds among other milk buyers, who might be asked similar questions, about the backlash that can follow.
It has given the industry an opportunity to highlight some of the unsavoury tactics deployed by activists opposing the badger cull, particularly in the cull areas.
It might just be that a very bad week for Caffe Nero, a PR disaster by most accounts, could benefit farmers and others battling the scourge of bovine TB in the long run.