Saturday, June 02, 2007

Organic coffee: Can one bad bean spoil the bag?

by Amy Westervelt - 6.1.07

Published in Sustainable Industries

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a ruling in March that would tighten organic certification requirements for group applications to such an extent that many in the organic coffee trade are concerned small farmers and co-ops will no longer be able to seek organic certification. While the ruling is not yet finalized, coffee roasters and grower advocacy groups fear the industry could be faced with significant changes in the coming year.

The bulk of organic coffee coming out of South and Central America and Africa is grown by groups of small growers certified under such group certifications. Without them, the United States wouldn’t have an organic coffee market, according to Kimberly Easson, director of strategic relationships for TransFair, the U.S. fair trade labeling organization.

Grower groups often have thousands of members, many of them small farms that could not afford certification on their own.

Because of the logistical difficulty of certifying farms individually, the National Organic Program (NOP) established group certification procedures. Grower groups appoint an internal policing board, which audits member compliance with NOP rules. The group then submits 20 percent of its farms for review by a third-party certification each year. The idea is that after five years all of the farms would be checked, but in the meantime the farms don’t all have to wait for certification.

The ruling arose out of a case involving an unnamed community grower group in Mexico whose internal audits failed to detect the use of a prohibited insecticide by one of its members or to provide evidence that the use of empty fertilizer bags for crop storage was confined to one producer.

NOP proposed changes to group grower certification in January 2007 and posted the ruling on its site in March: “Use of an internal inspection system as a proxy for mandatory on-site inspections of each production unit by the certifying agent is not permitted.”

The ruling attracted little attention in March, but by April grower co-ops and advocacy groups such as Food First and TransFair USA were criticizing the policy all over the Internet and launched a petition campaign that sent several thousands of signatures to USDA.

Now USDA has put the changes on hold. While NOP still intends to address concerns about abuse of group certifications, changes to the existing program will be discussed at the program’s fall meeting, with input from the National Organic Standards Board. While Easson says this is very good news for the growers, the changes could still eventually go through. If they do, it could affect the organic coffee trade from farm to cup.

The changes could limit the supply of certified organic coffee available to U.S. roasters, from small local roasters to Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX), many of which have paid for organic certification that will be impossible to maintain without the steady supply of organic beans needed to keep their certification. Martin Jennings, co-owner and master roaster of Washington-based Nectar of Life coffees says that for companies like his, which only roast dual certified coffees — those with both Organic and Fair Trade certifications — the new NOP policy would force a complete change in business model. The market for dual certified coffees is expected to grow dramatically in the year ahead, and the changes could impact the entire market’s expansion [see “Labels challenged to dual,” SI, October 2006].

“We would still offer only Fair Trade-certified coffee and whatever organic Fair Trade coffee was still available, but our coffee selection would be virtually crippled if we only roasted certified organic Fair Trade coffee,” Jennings says. “We would have to change everything regarding our business, including our stated goals, mission statement, packaging and literature.”

Though Jennings says his company would still purchase some organic coffees, he doubts it would able to buy strictly organic, due to a drop in supply and a corresponding increase in price. Because roasters are required to maintain strict separation of organic and non-organic beans in the roasting process, Jennings says Nectar of Life would not be able to maintain its certification, which allows it to use the term “100 percent organic” and the USDA Organic logo.

“Nectar of Life would like to remain a 100 percent organic, Fair Trade coffee roaster,” Jennings says, “but we would no longer be able to be certified as such.

orginally published 1 June 2007 at