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Who's lovin' it? McDonald's splits opinion with fair trade coffee

By Chris Mercer , 11-Jan-2007

McDonald's has become the latest multinational to muscle in on the UK's fair trade coffee scene, prompting more soul-searching for campaign groups.

McDonald's restaurants in the UK this week began sourcing all their coffee beans from farms certified by the Rainforest Alliance, a nonprofit group working to give developing world farmers sustainable livelihoods.

The move is another example of a multinational food firm moving to satisfy growing demand for ethical products, but has re-opened an old debate among campaign groups.

"[This] will transform the market for sustainably grown coffee in the UK," said Steve Easterbrook, president of McDonald's UK, which sells 143,000 cups of coffee every day. McDonald's said it intended to expand its commitment throughout Europe in 2007.

The iconic fast food chain buys its coffee from Kraft Foods, owner of the Kenco brand and one of the world's four largest coffee roasters. Kraft signed a first deal with the Rainforest Alliance in 2003.

Tensie Whelan, executive director of the Rainforest Alliance said the two firms had shown "sustainable coffee is not just a specialty product".

The same could increasingly be said for a range of foods, from chocolate to bananas. UK shoppers spent more than £2bn on ethical foods last year, a figure set to double over the next five years, according to market research group, Mintel.

It is a prediction raising more concerns among fair trade campaigners that they have diluted their principles by jumping into bed with 'big nasties' like McDonald's and Nestlé, however.

"We are never going to change something like the coffee industry if we're only working in something like five per cent of the market. We have to get multinational players involved," Luke Upchurch, spokesperson for Consumers International, told BeverageDaily.com

"The most important thing is maintaining fair trade's credibility in front of consumers."

Some believe McDonald's' deal with the Rainforest Alliance failed to do that.

"The fair trade movement was established to challenge the practices of companies like McDonald's, a multinational with a notorious record on key issues such as decent pay and conditions for its workers," said Simon McRae, senior campaigns officer for the War on Want charity.

Many in the fair trade movement also remain wary of multinational firms' motives, pointing out that less than one per cent of Nestlé's coffee is sourced under the Fairtrade scheme, a deal begun with the firm's Partners Blend brand in 2005.

McDonald's, Kraft and Nestlé are all rated as "very poor" on the Ethiscore scale - a system created by the UK-based Ethical Consumer Research Organisation.

Companies and products are awarded and deducted points according to practices across several areas, including worker rights, fair trade and environmental credentials.

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