When is 100% not 100%?

by JulieCraves on June 20, 2009

[Note: as of 2020, Rainforest Alliance has updated its labeling requirements and now requires 90% certified beans in order to carry the seal.]

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.)


Revised on July 28, 2020

Posted in Certifications,Rainforest Alliance

John June 21, 2009 at 6:32 pm

That definitely undermines the value of a RA seal.

Jörg June 22, 2009 at 4:08 am

Thanks for this enlightening contribution. It again shows that some certificates rather serve the purpose of marketing than the interests of nature conservation. When i'd be cynical I'd say this if this trend of diluting certified coffees continues we quickly approach a 'Rainforest homeopathic' label.



Abby from Rainforest Alliance June 23, 2009 at 11:15 am

Thanks for your post, Julie. As you mentioned, we’ve previously responded about the 30% and our focus being on overall benefits to farmers and their communities. Regarding content on the farm side, it is virtually impossible to avoid some slippage. ALL certification programs, including Fair Trade and organic, allow a small amount of slippage as well, as does ISEAL. The only way to avoid a small amount of slippage is to pick and roast the coffee yourself or go directly to a Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee farm that does this, which does sound like fun, and we can recommend a few. Or to buy your coffee from a company that only roasts and packages certified coffee. But millions of people love coffee, and if we want the convenience of buying delicious Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee that is grown and picked many miles from where we buy it, then we need to be practical, as well as caring, consumers.
We think Smithsonian Bird Friendly is a great certification program, but when we checked on their website this morning, they only had 25 certified farms listed. I don’t think any roaster could survive exclusively selling coffee with that certification, and our goal is to make sure that we can all have a part in conserving biodiversity and stimulating the sustainable livelihoods of farmers, workers and their families.

Julie June 23, 2009 at 11:59 am

Thanks for commenting here, Abby.

I don't doubt that it is difficult to avoid "slippage," or inadvertent mixing of beans when dealing in large volumes. I think most reasonable people, myself included, understand and accept that. However, the 10% allowances sounded more intentional — at least that was the way the question was posed and answered (e.g., "How much are we allowed to mix in without penalty?" with the answer, nearly verbatim, "I'd have to check, but probably the same amount roasters can mix in, about 10%").

To me, this is permission to do so intentionally. If it were meant to assure handlers that slippage was allowed, is 10% realistic? It's hard for me to imagine so sloppy a process in which 100 pounds of every 1000 could accidentally be uncertified beans, but I could be wrong. I'd be happy for further clarification on these allowances.

I also inquired very specifically about rules for organic certification. I was told by the director of accreditation of OCIA that the USDA's National Organic Plan rules expressly prohibit the mixing of non-organic coffee with organic coffee [section 205.301 (f)(7)]. Any coffee labeled "organic" or "100% organic" cannot contain non-organic coffee. There is no allowance for slippage. Nor does Smithsonian Bird-Friendly have an allowance. Perhaps someone from SMBC will also comment here.

I have reported on many positive Rainforest Alliance initiatives and developments here, and have pointed out misconceptions or shortcomings of other certifications as well. So I'm not out "to get" Rainforest Alliance, and hope that the open dialog we've had over the years continues. I not only applaud your good works, I want them to be better!

Demian Luper June 29, 2009 at 4:39 pm

When a Fair Trade Certified(tm) logo is on a package of coffee, 100% of the coffee contained therein must be bought on Fair Trade Certified terms (at least minimum price plus 10 cent/lb. reinvestment premium) from a certified producer co-op. The chain of custody for that product is reported on by all members of the supply chain and audited by TransFair USA, which may include physical inspections of licensed roasters' facilities.

The certification of FTC coffees does not allow for "slippage" as defined above as claimed by the representative of Rainforrest Alliance.

Demian Luper
Coffee Account Manager
TransFair USA
1500 Broadway Suite 400
Oakland, CA 94612

Julie June 29, 2009 at 5:29 pm

Demian, many thanks for clarification on Fair Trade labeling. It's beginning to look like RA stands alone on this one.

Abby from Rainforest Alliance June 30, 2009 at 2:30 pm

You're right about our policy of allowing 10% buffer for unintentional and unavoidable mixing.

In writing the guidelines, we said 90% instead of 100% because we wanted to be honest. It is impossible for any program to guarantee 100% pure certified as there will always be some minor mixing along the supply chain and in manufacturing.

Our auditors verify that the coffee from certified farms is kept separated from harvest through to export. Coffee mills have separate receiving stations for certified beans and run them through the wet process in separate batches. They have separate drying patios (can send photo) and keep the dried coffee is separate parts of the warehouse in specially marked bags (can send another photo).

Once the coffee gets to the buyer, they keep it separate until it is roasted and packed as 100% certified or blend it with beans from farms that are not yet certified. We allow some unintentional and unavoidable leakage of beans from farms not yet certified into the 100% packages. The leakage is usually only a tiny amount, a few percent. We allow up to 10% to be honest and transparent about the fact that some leakage will always happen.

If a roaster needs beans from farms that are not yet certified to fill out a blend, we allow that, but only with a clarification on the package so as to be entirely transparent and give consumers full and honest information.

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