More on the purity of certified coffees

by JulieCraves on July 14, 2009

My post, “When is 100% not 100%“? — regarding the amount of non-certified beans allowed in 100% Rainforest Alliance certified coffee — generated a lot of interest. Rainforest Alliance posted a comment, to which I replied. RA responded to my questions, and a Fair Trade representative (from TransFair USA) also chimed in, clarifying their position.

Now I’d like to post the comments of Bob Rice from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC), the developer and guardian of Bird-Friendly certified coffee:

There seem to be two issues here regarding product purity: one with purity at origin and in manufacturing; the other with reduced percentages for marketing purposes that are stated on the package or end product.

I can certainly appreciate Abby’s statement about wanting to be honest with respect to the consumers. And I agree that there are situations or organizations with which the 100% stipulation could be difficult to meet. But this, to me, instead of accepting and allowing a more relaxed standard for product purity, is all the more reason to insist upon 100% purity along with a strictly controlled audit trail.

No one I know necessarily expects fraud along the chain, but history is a stern teacher. We know from recent years that cooperatives (and estate farms, too, most likely) have sent off quantities of “certified” organic coffee that far exceeded the production capabilities of the organization. The rule for organic was 100% purity–at least at the farm gate–and there are cases in which a coop lost its organic certification and the director lost all credibility with the coffee industry. A more notorious and egregious case occurred at the consumption end with “Kona” coffee in California, where Panamanian beans were re-packed as Hawaiian. Someone went to jail on that. Where money is concerned, it’s a challenge that we all confront with certified coffees. But there are also ways to address such behavior, such as sanctions, suspensions or expulsion.

Like organic and fair trade, SMBC has a audit trail and rules about separation of BF product that get addressed via inspection. While no one would claim such systems are fool-proof, a stated purity of 100% works to encourage the best efforts at keeping the “all or nothing” standard intact for all concerned, and realizing it as best as possible at the consumption end.

Stating up front that you’re going to allow 90% purity to leave the farm and allow that to be considered 100% can only work against you in the long run. If you’re expecting 10% “leakage”, then you may well get that much leakage on your 90% rule–and perhaps even more, given that those at origin know you’re not expecting 100%. It simply puts you in a difficult position from the start.

RA’s allowance for different percentages of the final product (i.e., Holiday Inn’s coffee carafes with the 30% RA certified labeling) is altogether another matter and is understandable from the marketing and getting-the-word-out perspective. SMBC doesn’t allow it, but we understand the reasoning behind it. But such statements on end-consumer packaging–where assumptions by consumers are made about what a certification mark implies–are distinct from the leakage allowance at origin/manufacturing/packaging.

As Julie stated in her blog, if only 90% is the purity level at origin and then again at manufacturing, a consumer could well be drinking a “certified” product that is only 81% pure. And if that is then used to create an acknowledged 30% certified coffee, you’re down to less than a quarter of the product being certified.

Our feeling is that if a certification mark is going to represent whatever it is that it states it represents, then strict standards and enforcement need to in place. In discussing this issue with many people, I’ve found that those who are concerned about environmental and/or social issues and look for such seals expect nothing short of 100% purity. We would all do well to work toward that high-water mark. By holding everyone along the commodity chain to the highest standards possible can we create reliable, credible coffee products that we can truly say link conservation to the market place.

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Revised on October 9, 2016

Posted in Certifications,Rainforest Alliance

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