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Starbucks Korea delays free gift event after toxic bag debacle

By Lee Yoon-seo

Published : May 11, 2023 - 16:20

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A promotional image of Starbucks Korea’s summer carry bag (Starbucks Korea) A promotional image of Starbucks Korea’s summer carry bag (Starbucks Korea)

Starbucks Korea is putting off its summer promotional event for 2023 in order to carry out tougher product inspection in the aftermath of the massive recall of a promotional product that contained toxic, carcinogenic chemicals last year.

The seasonal promotional event, called the “e-frequency” reward program, has been taking place biannually in South Korea, offering limited-edition goods to its loyal customers since 2013.

The coffee chain typically announces the launch of the summer promotional event at the end of April to allow customers who made purchases that met a certain standard at Starbucks outlets to receive various free gifts for summer.

However, as of Thursday, the company said Starbucks Korea's summer marketing event for this year is still in preparation and will take place at an unspecified time with an unspecified range of goods.

"The schedules for this summer's promotional events are still being developed," an official from Starbucks Korea told The Korea Herald.

"We are running a more thorough analysis of our (summer) free giveaway items this year," he said.

As for the kind of inspection process that is being undertaken further to determine whether the items are safe, the official declined to elaborate.

Starbucks Korea's cautious move to launch this year's midsummer promotional event comes as last year, an anonymous employee at FITI Testing & Research, a state-run certifying organization for consumer goods, raised the claim that formaldehyde, a group 1 carcinogen that is used in some adhesives, fabrics and building materials, was detected in the free giveaway bags Starbucks gave out to Korean consumers.

The company came under fire after state-approved institutions released results that the items did in fact contain the chemical -- and faced even more backlash from the public after local media outlet YTN reported that the company had been hiding the results it got from state-run organizations for more than a week.

After consulting with the state-run Korean Agency for Technology and Standards, the company ultimately recalled some 1.8 million of the summer carry bags, and offered a public apology.

"In order to prevent a repetition of last year, we are putting in every effort to make our free giveaway items as safe as possible," the Starbucks Korea official said, adding that for this year's free gifts, the company is making safety its priority.