Environmental activists took aim at Starbucks on Wednesday for over their relationship with Maxim’s Caterers, whom they accuse of quietly selling shark fin dishes at their Hong Kong restaurants. Maxim’s is the license holder for Starbucks Hong Kong.

NGO WildAid says Maxim’s is still offering shark fin on “premium” menus at their eateries, despite stating last year that it had become “the first Chinese restaurant chain to completely phase out shark fin dishes from our à la carte menus…”

Maxim shark fin menu
A shark fin menu at Maxim’s Palace restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong. Photo: WildAid.

A quarter of the world’s sharks are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Sharks often have their fins removed while still alive and are thrown back into the ocean.

Hong Kong remains one of the largest markets in the global shark fin trade. But appetite has been declining in recent years, with a recent survey finding that 77 per cent of Hongkongers are unwilling to purchase products that come from a threatened shark species.

‘Cruel, dirty, unsustainable’ 

In a letter to Starbucks executives last month, WildAid urged it to sever business ties with Maxim’s ahead of its upcoming China expansion: “Maxim’s seemingly contradictory status as Hong Kong’s largest retailer of shark fin soup casts a stain on Starbucks’ reputation… [We] sincerely urge Starbucks to call on its Hong Kong licensee Maxim’s Caterers Limited, to halt all cruel, dirty, unsustainable, and often illegal shark fin trade with immediate effect.”

In a public statement, the NGO said: “To date the global coffee giant has not responded to the letter in a meaningful way, nor made its stance on shark conservation known publicly.”

Starbucks previously committed to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which aims to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”

WildAid claims that Maxim’s sale of shark fin dishes undermines Starbucks’ contribution to the SDG. Maxim’s has previously said it “take[s] responsibility in sustainable sourcing while continuing to respond to our customers’ changing preferences.”

‘Purely a profit issue’

Other activists have claimed the sale of shark fin poses a health risk to consumers.

In a press statement on Wednesday, Loie Psihoyos, Executive Director of the Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS), said: “It’s unbelievable that Starbucks has shacked up with a company in Hong Kong that may literally be poisoning its customers with the toxic heavy metals that are commonly found in shark fin. For health reasons alone, Starbucks needs to act now, and pull the plug on it’s Hong Kong partner.”

mall shopping
File photo: Factwire

Shawn Heinrichs, founder of Blue Sphere Foundation, also said on Tuesday that it was not a cultural issue: “[I]t’s about clean environmental and social governance as well protecting an iconic species that is critical to maintaining healthy marine ecosystems everywhere. But for Maxim’s this is obviously purely a profit issue.”

A public protest will be held outside Maxim’s headquarters in Lai Chi Kok on Friday by WildAid.

Last December, the restaurant chain sponsored a responsible eating event to promote corporate social responsibility and sustainability.

HKFP has reached out to Maxim’s and Starbucks for comment.

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.