The safety of Coffee

The World of coffee and food safety

I have enjoyed my time working with coffee farmers around the world. Learning to cup coffee with a Starbucks team in Rwanda was eye opening. Coffee cupping, or coffee tasting, is the practice of observing the tastes and aromas of brewed coffee. It is a professional practice but can be done informally by anyone or by professionals known as “Q Graders”. A standard coffee cupping procedure involves deeply sniffing the coffee, then slurping the coffee from a spoon so it is aerated and spread across the tongue. The coffee taster attempts to measure aspects of the coffee’s taste, specifically the body, sweetness, acidity, flavor, and aftertaste. Since coffee beans embody telltale flavors from the region where they were grown, cuppers may attempt to identify the coffee’s origin.

In 1962 the United States was a primary organizer of the International Coffee Organization (ICO). It has been renewed seven times and is an international commodity agreement between coffee producing and consuming countries. The objective is to strengthen the global coffee sector and promote its sustainable expansion. It was a surprise when the US President Trump made the decision to withdraw the United States as a signatory of the International Coffee Agreement on June 3, 2018. Although the US Government withdrew, the private sector in the US, represented by the National Coffee Association and the Specialty Coffee Association, is supportive of the ICO. (José Sette, executive director of the ICO) The ICO promotes good food safety practices throughout the coffee chain, addressing both the concerns of producing countries in building capacity, and consumer health concerns of regulatory bodies.

Guatemala has become the only major coffee-producing country to not be a part of the agreement and withdrew from the International Coffee Agreement of 2007, on September 30, 2020. In 2019, Guatemala was the 10th largest coffee-producing country in the world by volume and the second largest in Central America behind only Nicaragua. Smallholder farmers make up an estimated 96.8% of the coffee producers in Guatemala and many of them are operating at a loss. Despite a reputation of quality, this past year the base price for arabica coffee futures contracts on the commodities market (i.e. the “C price”) was a only $1.00 USD per pound.

Before the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law on Jan. 4, 2011, by President Obama not much was done about the food safety of coffee.  The FDA considers a food product to be anything that you put into your mouth and swallow. All food products have potential to cause harm, no matter how low the risk and now coffee is being addressed. So now your company must be registered, and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) must be put in place, based on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP). This preventive program is to keep the coffee safe from biological, chemical, and physical hazards in the production process that can cause the finished product to be unsafe. Not that the coffee industry has had major problems. The most notable one was a flavored coffee in the 1990s that contained potential nut allergies. And what is a main problem they are looking for; Can you track all your product if there is a recall?

Mycotoxins are toxic chemicals produced by molds found in the environment. Molds and mycotoxins may occur in crops like grains and coffee beans. Many different types of mycotoxins exist, but the ones most relevant to coffee crops are aflatoxin B1 and ochratoxin A. Changing climate conditions are promoting weather conditions that trigger mycotoxin production in food crops pre- and postharvest and during the storage of food.  Shifting weather patterns are causing various toxins to appear in new regions of the world. Good Hygiene Practices Along the Coffee Chain, states that “interest in the presence of aflatoxin in coffee was perhaps diverted by early laboratory studies that seemed to show that caffeine prevented aflatoxin production. Later work has shown aflatoxin to occur in coffee samples both at retail and from traders.” The International Food Standards, Codex Alimentarius, covers many aspects of coffee production including codes of practices for aflatoxin and ochratoxin.

Traditionally coffee was roasted and brewed at high temperatures, then eventually run through a filter, and was considered a low-risk food. But now cold brew presents a particularly new challenge in coffee. Cold brew coffee is brewed without heat, usually overnight at room temperature or over a long period of time. Therefore, cold brew coffee. has an inherent food safety risk due to lack of heat process and prolonged storage at room temperature. It is also considered a “low-acid food.” No coffee has been found to contain any dangerous pathogens. The concern is that without the proper processing, the product could develop mold and potentially allow growth of other microorganisms including dangerous pathogens, such as Listeria and botulism.

Cold Press Coffee

There was an FDA recall of a canned cold-brew coffee product due to the threat of botulism and the company halted production until an additional step in the manufacturing process could be implemented. Three options to maintain product integrity have been suggested for potential risk:

1.  Maintaining temperatures below 40 degrees F throughout the entire brewing process and supply chain to the customer. This step may also require an additional control to show that the product is listeria free.  (Requires prominent consumer warnings on the package, instructing to keep cold <40°F until consumed”)

2.  Retorting Pressure Vessels would be best used to eliminate the potential of clostridium botulinum spores.

3. Using preservatives.

Coffee and Food Safety
Coffee Production in Rwanda

Quality arabica coffee is a mountain coffee. It is a labor-intensive crop with most work being done by hand.  Many smallholder farmers grow premium coffee. Unlike regular coffee, premium beans must be fully washed, and they must score at least 80 points on a quality scale, so the farming and processing methods are important. Many factors influence the score, from climate, soil quality and farming practices, to the time between when the ripe coffee cherries are picked and dropped off for processing. Due to limited extension service providers farmers have had to depend on the exporters for training and support before then selling their coffee to them. The coffee producers I have worked with in Africa and the Americas have impressed me with integrity and hard work ethics. They receive little reward for the wonderful cups of coffee I enjoy each day and now they are being faced with new challenges, along with those serving coffee here at home.

Coffee contains lots of antioxidants that help the body fight chemicals called “free radicals.”  A single cup of coffee contains 11% of the daily recommended amount of Riboflavin (vitamin B2), 6% of Pantothenic Acid (vitamin B5), 3% of Manganese and Potassium, and 2% of Niacin and Magnesium. Studies have shown that drinking caffeine can increase your metabolism 3 to 11%. Enjoy that cup of coffee and think of all the good that coffee provides you and know that people are working hard to keep your coffee safe!

Welcome to this collective learning experience on global food safety.  Contact us to work together.

If it isn’t safe, it isn’t food  (FAO)

Coffee and Food Safety, a coffee tree.
Coffee tree with berries

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