Costco has removed a popular coconut milk from its shelves after allegations that the maker uses monkeys for forced labor in its production process, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). USA Today first reported that Chaokoh, a coconut milk made by Theppadungporn Coconut Co. Ltd and produced in Thailand, was accused by PETA of forcing chained-up monkeys to do hard labor in the form of coconut picking.
Costco follows other grocery giants including Walgreens, Food Lion, Giant Food and Stop & Shop in removing Thai coconut products from its shelves amidst allegations of animal abuse.
In an email to TODAY Food, Chaokoh said that the company does not support any kind of animal labor and referred to the "Monkey-free Coconut Due Diligence Assessment" on their website that shows zero major or minor findings of monkey labor.
PETA declared victory on Instagram, sharing a picture of a Chaokoh coconut milk can with a red "x" through it.
"@Costco — one of the largest grocery chains in the US — has cut ties with coconut milk producer #Chaokoh after discussions with PETA and hearing from thousands of people like you," posted the organization.
Kent Stein, corporate responsibility officer for PETA told TODAY Food that monkey labor is not uncommon in Thailand.
"It is common for monkeys to be used for coconut production," he said. "Thailand is the only country where it still occurs. So if you get coconut milk from Malaysia or Indonesia it probably is not from coconuts picked by monkeys. It’s a cruel tradition," said Stein.
"Even the official tourism authority — they advertise farms where you can watch monkeys in coconut picking competitions," he added.
PETA is pressuring retailers and the Thai government for change.
"Whenever animals are used for profit, that's where the line is drawn," said Stein. "They always suffer. These monkeys aren’t just picking coconuts for fun. You might wonder what the cruelty is. They’re in chains. If they weren’t they would leave. They sometimes have their fangs removed."
As to why Thailand still allows this, Stein's conclusion is simple: "They want the free labor that the monkeys provide," he said.
In the past PETA has come down on other forms of animal labor including horse drawn carriages and even dog sledding races.
Stein says that since the tradition of using monkeys for labor has been phased out in other countries, there's no reason Thailand can't follow suit.
"We work with Thai animal groups who have told us they also fight against it," he said. "They don’t want to see the monkeys abused this way. It’s just an old-world, unfortunate cruelty."
According to a statement provided to TODAY Food from PETA president Ingrid Newkirk, Costco — which operates 795 warehouses and boasted worldwide retail sales of more than $150 billion in 2019 — previously sold Chaokoh coconut milk in bulk. PETA's campaign included a meeting with Costco representatives at the retailer's headquarters in January and subsequent discussions, a petition signed by tens of thousands of the group's members and supporters, a letter to Costco from Belinda Carlisle of The Go-Go's (who now lives in Thailand) on behalf of PETA and a delivery of humanely picked coconuts to Costco's president and CEO.
"No kind shopper wants monkeys to be chained up and treated like coconut-picking machines," said Newkirk. "Costco made the right call to reject animal exploitation, and PETA is calling on holdouts like Kroger to follow suit."
Last month, Costco pulled Palmetto Cheese from its shelves after its owner called Black Lives Matter a "terror organization."
TODAY Food reached out to Costco for a statement on the matter but they declined to respond.
This article was updated on Nov. 3, 2020 with the response from Chaokoh.