When is 100% not 100%?

by on June 20, 2009

Non-certified beans allowed in coffee labeled as 100% Rainforest Alliance certified.

Product labels are a tricky thing. Marketers use all sorts of colorful language to entice consumers to buy their products. The extent of regulations governing the truthfulness of product labeling depend on the product and the country.

A fine example, the one I harp on here all the time, is the label “shade-grown coffee.” There is no legal definition of the term “shade-grown.” Therefore, this label can be slapped on any coffee, including coffee grown in the sun, or from farms with only a few shade trees This might be done out of either ignorance or a desire to capture the market (see more on this here), because these coffees usually carry a price premium.

Enter third-party certifications, which are designed to reassure buyers that the coffee they purchase is grown under particular standards and conditions, verified by an outside organization. The two “eco-certifications” for coffee which include shade criteria are Smithsonian Bird-Friendly and Rainforest Alliance. Smithsonian Bird-Friendly certification deals exclusively with shade growing methods (it also requires organic certification), while Rainforest Alliance certification includes less rigorous shade criteria (quick comparison here), as well as standards relating to other aspects of farm management.

Smithsonian Bird-Friendly: What’s in the bag
When you buy coffee with the Smithsonian Bird-Friendly (BF) seal on it, 100% of the beans in the bag came from a BF-certified farm, or certified portion of the farm. Period.

Rainforest Alliance: What’s in the bag
When you buy coffee that carries the Rainforest Alliance seal, it may contain as little as 30% certified beans — the amount should be specified on the bag; an example from Caribou’s house blend is shown here. The mere fact that this is allowed (especially for large roasters like Kraft) is disconcerting to many people, consumers and roaster alikes. But at least the amount is disclosed on the packaging.

If there is no minimum content indicated on a package of coffee that carries the Rainforest Alliance seal, that is intended to mean that all the beans in the bag come from Rainforest Alliance certified farms. Sometimes the package or advertising even reiterates that the contents are 100% certified beans. However, there is a little problem with this.

Rainforest Alliance: When 100% might equal 81%
I learned at the Coffee Conference I attended last fall that packages labeled 100% Rainforest Alliance certified can actually contain much less than that without disclosure to the consumer. This is because players at both ends of the coffee supply chain are allowed to mix in up to 10% non-certified beans without penalty.

This information came directly from a Rainforest Alliance representative. It was in response to a question from a Rainforest Alliance certified coffee farmer who attended the conference. He asked if producers could mix in a percentage of beans from non-certified parts of their farms, and if so, how much. The Rainforest Alliance rep responded that she thought it would be up to 10%, the same amount of non-certified beans roasters and retailers are allowed to mix in their products.

Therefore, a package of Rainforest Alliance certified coffee, marketed as and believed by the consumer to contain 100% RA-certified beans could conceivably only contain 81% certified beans (if the roaster/retailer mixed in 10% non-certified beans into a shipment from a producer that only contained 90% certified beans, 90% * .90 = 81%).

I hate to rip on Rainforest Alliance, as I think they’ve done some great things for sustainable coffee. This, however, is not one of them. Many roasters I’ve talked to think that the “30% rule” tarnishes a great certification, confuses or misleads consumers, and indicates too much concession to corporate interests. Although most coffee people I’ve discussed this with don’t agree with them, Rainforest Alliance at least has their rationale for doing this. The additional 10% “slop” allowance, though, seems to defy explanation. It’s not permitted for coffee labeled 100% organic or 100% Bird-Friendly. If a coffee carries a 100% seal, it should contain 100% certified contents. That seems pretty simple to me.

(UPDATE: Please read the comment section — it includes a reply from Rainforest Alliance as well as my response and that of a TransFair representative — and my follow up-post which in there is a lengthy reply from the Smithsonian Bird-Friendly folks.)

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Revised on November 2, 2010

Posted in Certifications,Rainforest Alliance

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