Thursday, November 02, 2006

Trouble brewing over coffee quality

Southeast Asia

Nov 2, 2006

HANOI - Coffee quality is becoming a hot issue after a Vietnam Coffee and Cocoa Association (VICOFA) representative revealed a staggering increase in rejected product.

From October 2005 to March 2006, about 88% of the coffee rejected on the world market was from Vietnam, said Doan Trieu Nhan, deputy chairman of VICOFA, during a meeting organized by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

This was a 19% increase from the previous six-month period, he said.

Ministry experts blame the decline in quality on farmers mixing unripe and ripe beans during harvest. In addition, farmers are not properly drying the beans after harvesting, which reduces the overall quality.

The price for unripe and ripe coffee beans is virtually the same, which discourages farmers from separating the two. In addition, farmers fear a slowdown in harvesting and higher operating costs associated with separating the beans.

Nhan admits that harvesting unripe beans reduces coffee exports by 10-20% because of the frequent quality rejections. The biggest loss, however, is the prestige of Vietnamese coffee in international market, Nhan said. Buyers in North America and Europe value Vietnamese coffee's natural quality, which has led to direct competition with long-established markets such as Brazil and Indonesia.

Harvesting yields are high in Vietnam even though the total area planted for coffee is a quarter of that used in Brazil. As a result, Vietnam has become one of the world's largest coffee exporters, a title experts fear may be lost if quality does not improve.

Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Diep Kinh Tan is concerned that the Vietnamese coffee industry ranks second in quality but fifth in export turnover.

When Vietnam becomes a World Trade Organization member, the coffee industry will face more stringent regulations on hygiene and quality control, Tan said. He urged industry leaders to make the necessary adjustments to stay competitive in the global market.

The ministry has guided the Tay Nguyen (Central Highlands) provinces, where more than 90% of the country's coffee plantations are located, through quality-control improvements. Provincial authorities will teach people new harvesting technology. Each province will set up their own model to harvest and process coffee beans.

The ministry has suggested that coffee earmarked for export be thoroughly examined before being shipped.

(Asia Pulse/VNA)