Trader Joe’s is a specialty grocery store chain with 315 stores nationwide. It was founded by Joe Coulombe in California, with the first store under the Trader Joe’s name opening in 1966. In 1979, the company was purchased by Theo Albrecht, a German billionaire and one of the brothers that founded the ALDI discount supermarket chain; it remains a privately held company in an Albrecht family trust. Although ALDI and TJ’s have always operated as separate entities, many of TJ/’s business practices are right out of the ALDI playbook.
Private labels = low cost = murky transparency
Like ALDI, TJ’s is known for it’s wide range of reasonably priced, private label house brands. Private label brands are manufactured by one company, which remains anonymous, to be sold under the brand of another. Like ALDI, TJ’s is especially secretive about their suppliers . (Update: read more in the Fortune magazine article, “Inside the secret world of Trader Joe’s” from August 2010.)
TJ’s offers over a dozen house brands of coffee. The varieties may provide a country or countries of origin, but other details on the source of the coffee are usually not on the packaging. I wrote two detailed emails and a snail mail letter to TJ’s inquiring about their coffee sourcing and inviting them to highlight their sustainability efforts. I did not get any replies. I’m not alone; TJ’s did not respond to phone inquiries from a reporter seeking comment on their lack of shade coffee criteria.
Who roasts Trader Joe’s coffee?
Nonetheless, some digging indicates that Mountanos Brothers in California has been sourcing and roasting coffee for TJ’s for some time. Mountanos has a wholesale green coffee importing division as well as a retail and roasting arm, which also handles wholesale and private label business.You’ll recognize the familiar fiberboard valve canisters used by both Mountanos and TJ’s. Unfortunately, you won’t find many details on specific origins — farms, estates, cooperatives, or even many regions — on either of the coffee lists maintained by Mountanos. In any event, the coffees provided to TJ’s may not be the same ones Mountanos uses in their own products.
Right now in my local store, TJ’s has three varieties labeled as “shade grown” which I’ll explore further:
- Organic, Fair Trade, Shade Grown Ethiopian Yirgacheffe
- Organic, Fair Trade, Shade Grown Café Femenino
- Shade Grown Deep French Roast (blend of Central and South American)
These display organic and/or Fair Trade certification seals, but no shade certification. Remember, there’s no legal definition of “shade.” Roasters have various ways of “verifying” that coffee is shade grown, and it’s usually the word of non-biologists with an interest in getting the coffee sold.
What do we know about the origins of Trader Joe’s coffees that are labeled shade grown?
Typically, Ethiopian coffee is grown by small holders in garden plots under light shade. The garden plots consist of multicropping of plants such as ginger and cardamom, fruit trees (avocado, papaya), and coffee shrubs planted in the shade of one or a few trees. While there are large government and private plantations, they usually do not qualify for Fair Trade certification and are generally not organic. I surmise that the source of TJ’s Ethiopian coffee (at least a large part of it) is the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (OCFCU), which represents nearly 103,000 producers in 29 cooperatives, about 20% of which are Fair Trade certified. With that many producers, it’s hard to say how many have really biodiverse coffee plots, and there is virtually nothing focusing on the environment on the Oromia web site. But the Oromia project is considered very worthwhile to the members, and if nothing else I believe thwarting poverty also averts environmental exploitation. A cautious thumbs up, if TJ’s is sourcing from Oromia.
As of this writing, TJ’s Café Femenino coffee comes from Peru (the Café Femenino project is is other countries but the basic social principals apply) . This coffee does have a more specific origin noted: northern Peru’s Lambayeque region. These would be the beans from female producers separated from those of the local co-op, CECANOR. Other than the usual mention that the coffee is shade grown, there are few details on environmental initiatives on the CECANOR web site or the web site of Café Femenino’s exclusive importer, Optco. From what I have read about the Café Femenino project, most of these female producers have very small plots, and many do grow under levels of shade that are more diverse than much of the coffee produced in Peru (see below). It is also a worthwhile project to support. Of the three coffees, this is the one I would say is most sustainable on an environmental and human scale. You just have to like over-roasted beans.
Shade Grown Deep French Roast
So what about the coffee that Trader Joe’s highlights in their coffee brochure (pdf) as their signature shade grown brand, the Shade Grown Deep French Roast?
All we have to go by is that it is a blend of Central and South American beans. It’s highly probable that the South American component comes from Peru, as Colombia and Brazil are not known for either their organic or shade coffee. Peru is one of the world’s largest producers of organic coffee, but their focus on volume has resulted in deforestation in many areas, and it’s likely to be grown under monoculture shade . You have no assurance that just because the coffee is organic, that it is grown under any kind of diverse shade that preserves habitat.
As for a more specific origin in Peru, it’s not Café Femenino, which must be not be blended and must be labeled as such. It may be sourced from other members of the CECANOR co-op, and I’ve also heard that TJ’s sources from COCLA, a huge umbrella organization of 7500 producers.
The problem with determining the sustainability of coffee from cooperatives, especially large ones, is that they comprise a wide range of farming practices, since each farmer manages his own farm independently. Beans in any given shipment of coffee might come from many dozens or hundreds of farms. The majority of the farms in an organic certified co-op may not even be inspected annually.
As for the Central American component, it’s anybody’s guess. A likely source is some of the tons of generic beans coming out of Guatemala, and if they consider Mexico part of Central America, some could also come from there.
Why won’t they be more specific?
Aside from protecting the identity of their suppliers, large volume coffee roasters/distributors use broad geographic descriptors on their packaging to insure that they have the flexibility to source from a large number of co-ops or farms. If a coffee is labeled “Mexico,” for example, a roaster can source from well over 100,000 producers Imagine the leeway Trader Joe’s has by indicating the source for their Shade Grown Dark French Roast is essentially all of Latin America!
In these instances, Trader Joe’s, and other large roasters, are looking for the best price. By having the option of using so many producers, they also are able to drive down prices by increasing competition between producers. As for quality, these large roasters are aiming for a particular flavor profile — necessarily a rather generic one — and often use darker roasts to cover up flaws in lower-quality beans . While dark roasts are a nod to the public that seems enamoured with over-roasted coffee and mistakenly equates “dark” with “strong,” turning a bean black blasts any honest character out of coffee. You are left with coffee that lacks distinction and could be from anywhere. And probably is.
Buying coffee from Trader Joe’s is better than buying Folger’s, Maxwell House, or some other mass-produced brand. But their focus on low price is a double-edged sword, opening a market for farmers who are unable to achieve real quality, but also depressing prices and lowering expectations. And I disagree with the whole concept of anonymous food products. I don’t like to dump on Trader Joe’s. There are a lot of things I like about it. Coffee just isn’t one of them.
The bottom line is that Trader Joe’s shade grown coffees are not third-party verified, and TJ’s offers no explanation as to how they’ve concluded that the coffees they offer are indeed eco-friendly. And because Trader Joe’s does not provide enough information on the origins of most of their coffees, it’s not possible to determine if they are actually grown in a sustainable manner.
 When it comes to consumable products, this anonymity can be problematic. It can be dangerous, as the current peanut product recall illustrates — at least 10 Trader Joe’s products are part of the recall. Or it may just confuse the consumer, as is the case with organic milk. An increasing volume of organic milk is coming from industrial dairies that are not in full compliance with organic standards. This milk shows up in name brands (Horizon Organic is the brand owned by agribusiness giant Dean’s Foods) and private labels. A comprehensive look at this situation is provided by the Cornucopia Institute, which just came out with an update to its dairy report; the scorecard rates Trader Joe’s private label milk 1 out of 5, stating that TJ’s, like other private label marketers, was unwilling to divulge where they got their milk.
 For example, Cerulean Warblers were found in rustic coffee farms in central Peru during a Smithsonian survey in 1998-1999. Follow up surveys in 2006 found this habitat had been eliminated. The coffee was still there, but the diverse native shade trees had been cleared and replaced with young fast-growing species with few leaves and epiphytes; no Cerulean Warblers were found. More commentary on the lack of eco-friendliness of Peru’s organic coffee can be found on Gunnar Engblom’s Birding Peru web site. Gunnar is a transplanted Swedish biologist who is a conservationist and experienced bird guide, operating Kolibri Expeditions out of Lima, Peru.
Engblom, G. 2006. Cerulean Warbler survey in Central Peru January-February 2006. Report to el Grupo Ceruleo, subcommittee of the Cerulean Warbler Working Group, U.S. Forest Service, Southern Research Station. PDF.
Sterling, J., R. Greenberg, W. Widdowson, M. Widdowson, and P Bichier. 1998. Birds of the Villa Rica area, Pasco, Peru. Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. PDF.
 Ken Davids at Coffee Review has a brief discussion on TJ’s over-dark roasts and the problems with bargain-priced Fair Trade coffees.