Rat Poison, Peet's Coffee, and the California Desert

The problems of California's wildlife don't amount to a hill of beans to Peet's new owners. | Photo: Amanda/Flickr/Creative Commons License

One of the most insidious dangers for wildlife in urbanized parts of the California desert is rat poison. We put out those cardboard bait stations to kill mice and rats. A rodent seals its fate as soon as it eats a few bites, but the poison takes a few days to work. For the few days it might take to die the weakened rodent is even more susceptible to being captured by an owl, or a hawk, or a snake. The poison doesn't break down quickly once ingested, so any animal that eats a poisoned rat swallows every bit of the poison the rat ate.

The EPA has ordered the poison off the retail market due to its devastating effect on wildlife -- not to mention pets and children, who often fall victim to accidental poisonings. A manufacturer of the stuff is refusing to comply with the order, and getting away with it. It's a classic case of corporate greed running roughshod over the public good.

And that's why I've had my last cup of Peet's coffee.

I hasten to point out that there's nothing dangerous about drinking Peet's coffee. If there were, I'd have died sometime in the early 1980s. The connection here is corporate, not chemical. Delineating that connection will take us to Germany, Britain, and the Bay Area, but we will come back to the desert. I promise.

Peet's, which has been struggling financially in recent years, announced this week that it had been acquired by the German company Joh. A. Benckiser at a price of a billion dollars. The deal, in which Peet's stockholders will realize a bit over $70 per share, will take the company private. Joh. A Benckiser is a holding firm that manages the commercial interests of the descendants of Johann Benckiser, a 19th century German chemicals magnate. The company Benckiser founded in 1823 went public in 1997, and merged with British household products firm Reckitt & Colman in 1999. New Peet's owner Joh. A. Benckiser holds a significant share of stock in the merged Reckitt Benckiser, and Reckitt Benckiser's Bart Becht, who served as CEO from 1999 until last year, is one of three senior partners at Joh. A Benckiser. The two corporations are intimately intertwined.

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Reckitt Benckiser owns a stunning number of brands, with many of which you are very likely familiar. The one we care about here is D-Con, the United States' leading brand of rodent poison.

Since the early 1980s, D-Con rat and mouse poisons have relied on a particularly effective active ingredient: brodifacoum. Brodifacoum poisoning is a horrible way to die. The chemical depletes your bloodstream of Vitamin K -- the official kind, not the rave kind. You need Vitamin K in order for your blood to clot. Without it, you could die of blood loss from even minor wounds. Brodifacoum also drastically increases the permeability of your capillaries, which means your blood starts oozing through the walls of your tiniest blood vessels. Brodifacoum victims essentially leak to death.

The process causes dehydration, what with all your fluids leaking out of your bloodstream, and consequent intense thirst. D-Con has actually used this last feature as a selling point: a rat or mouse dying of brodifacoum poisoning will search desperately for water, which means that they tend to leave your house before they die, or at least they don't die inside your walls where retrieval would be difficult. As it takes a few days for symptoms to set in, rodents don't associate the bait with their ill health, preventing "bait-shyness." They may return over the course of their remaining days to eat many times their lethal dose.

Those last features cause the problem with wildlife. A rat leaving its shelter to search desperately for water is a rat asking to be eaten. And as brodifacoum persists in the victim's tissue for a very long time -- rats that survive poisoning have been found to retain brodifacoum in their fatty tissues 2 years after eating the bait -- any passing owl, or hawk, or whatever predator who succumbs to temptation will likely consume almost as much brodifacoum as her victim ate, which may itself be several times the lethal dose for the rodent. If that's not quite enough to do the raptor in, no matter. The brodifacoum stores itself in her tissue as avidly as it does in the rats' tissue. A few more meals may be all it takes to put her over the edge.

It's not just wild birds that suffer. Brodifacoum is highly toxic to mammals as well, and extremely toxic to fish. Animals with vegetarian diets aren't immune, as they may well be attracted to carelessly placed baits. Or deliberately placed baits: brodifacoum is used for "control" of larger species such as opossums. As the American Bird Conservancy says,

That's why the Environmental Protection Agency decided in 2008 to take brodifacoum off the retail market along with several related anticoagulants, requiring that it be used only by certified pesticide applicators. The agency also required that brodifacoum be used only in secure "bait stations" rather than in loose pellet form to reduce the risk of poisoning children and pets. The EPA's changes would have taken effect in June 2011. Most manufacturers of rat poison complied with the order.

But Reckitt Benckiser sued the EPA to block the decision, and won a delay. The company didn't challenge EPA's science, but merely objected that the EPA hadn't engaged in a long drawn-out hearing process at the end of which the agency would have the authority to just restrict the pesticide anyway.

In other words, Reckitt Benckiser knows brodifacoum will be coming off the retail market in the U.S. because of its horrendous danger to wildlife, but they make more money if they pay their lawyers to delay that day as long as possible, and no matter the danger to wildlife.

We generally think of rodent poison's target species as house mice and black and brown rats, critters that can inspire a shudder of revulsion in even the most squee-prone Cute Overload readers. (Though those of us who've had pet rats will rightly object to the slur on our sweet, affectionate and clever pals.) The California desert has house mice and city rats, but it also has native rodent species that have adapted to varying degrees to human companionship. There are packrats that will happily move into our crawlspaces or vehicle engine compartments. There are harvest mice, deer mice, and grasshopper mice. There are kangaroo rats and antelope ground squirrels (often mistaken for chipmunks) and regular ground squirrels. All of them are susceptible to temptation from rat poison.

Rodents are at the base of the California desert's animal food chain. If an animal in the California desert doesn't eat rodents, it's either 1) smaller than the rodents in question or 2) vegetarian. Prairie falcons eat desert rodents. As do barn owls and saw-whet owls. And red-tailed hawks. And kestrels. And golden eagles. Desert kit foxes. Coyotes. Rattlesnakes. Turkey vultures. California condors. Bobcats. Pumas. Brodifacoum threatens the entire food web of the desert.

And not just the desert. Last week, we heard that rat poison use at illegal Sierra Nevada pot farms was killing threatened fishers, a small predator in the weasel family. Outrage against brodifacoum is growing in the raptor-friendly Bay Area, where one group points out that the poison kills the very owls and small urban birds of prey that most effectively control rodents.

The Bay Area is also home to Peet's Coffee and Tea, soon to be owned by a corporation with a strong financial interest in threatening California's wildlife. Peet's has long been an exemplary company in many ways. It's had occasional stumbles, such as its misstep in trying to build a store on the site of Irv's Burgers in West Hollywood. Its New-Agey opposition to many Fair Trade provisions was troubling. Still I've been a devoted customer since my first morning in California in 1982, when -- still bleary from the three-day cross-country bus ride -- I stumbled a few blocks toward a Berkeley cafe and drank something wholly unlike the mid-west diner swill that was the only coffee I'd ever known.

For thirty years since, Peet's has been my brand of choice. When I moved from the Bay Area to the desert in 2008, the prospect of no Peet's nearby was hard to adjust to. I bought 15 pounds of their espresso to take with me: it lasted me the summer, and I drank it iced while sitting in whatever shade I could find to watch the local desert wildlife.

But no more. I can tolerate a bit of contradiction in my life, because none of us are perfectly consistent. But I spend a lot of money on coffee. The thought that that substantial chunk of my monthly budget might go to enrich people who profit from poisoning the things I hold dear is just too big a contradiction for me.

So 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.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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