[S5:E1] Articles Read: Organically Grown Coffee

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In this first installment for 2024, I dig a little deeper into certified organic coffees. Should the industry care about certified organic coffee? Should consumers care? What role or roles can organic coffee play in ethical consumption?


Read the original article here: Organically Grown Coffee

My newest coffee is from Oaxaca, Mexico and it's a chocolate-bomb! Check it out: Shop.OilSlickCoffee.com/products/mexico-oaxaca



Welcome to season five of the Oil Slick Coffee podcast. In this first installment for 2024, I dig a little deeper into certified organic coffees. Should the industry care about certified organic coffee? Should consumers care? What role or roles can organic coffee play in ethical consumption? This episode might be a bit insider baseball for some, because I dig into the details of what is required to legally market a certified organic food product in the US.

In the end. I think I’ve posed more questions than I’ve answered. But that’s how it often is with coffee.

This is Oil, Slick Coffee. Wake. Brew. Rebel. Repeat.

I’ve previously written about certified organic coffee and its potential impact on farmers. And I recently purchased an unroasted certified organic coffee to roast and sell. However, I’m not able to market it as an organic coffee because I’m unable to satisfy the US Department of Agriculture requirements to roast the coffee in a facility certified by them.

In this article, I explain what that means.

To coffee in the United States labeled as organic a coffee roaster must comply with several requirements established by the United States Department of Agriculture under the National Organic Program, or NOP. These requirements include:

Organic certification. The coffee must be certified organic by USDA accredited certifying agent. This ensures that the coffee is grown and processed according to federal guidelines, addressing factors such as soil quality, pest and weed control. And use of additives.

Sourcing of organic beans. Coffee beans must be grown without the use of prohibited substances like certain pesticides and fertilizers for three years before the harvest used for organic coffee.

Roasting process. The roasting facility must also be certified for handling organic products. This ensures that there is no cross-contamination of forbidden products.

Recordkeeping. The roaster must keep detailed records that document the production handling and sales of the organic coffee.

Labeling. Compliance with organic labeling requirements is mandatory. This includes using the USDA organic seal and proper presentation of the organic content. For example. 100% organic or organic or made with organic ingredients depending on the specific content.

Inspection and compliance. Regular inspections are conducted to ensure ongoing compliance with organic standards. This includes reviews of the facilities and processes. As well as testing of soil and water in the case of farmers.

Prevention of contamination. Measures must be in place to prevent contamination of organic beans with prohibited substances or co-mingling with non-organic products.

Finally; marketing and sales. When marketing organic coffees, all claims must be truthful and not misleading regarding the organic status and practices.

The USDA requires the prevention of contamination of organic beans with prohibited substances or commingling with non-organic products. It is generally understood that in the roastery, this means a dedicated roasting machine for organic coffee. The underlying assumption is that beans rolling around inside a roasting machine or in the cooling tray can be contaminated with forbidden substances.

USDA regulations forbid the following:

"The use or reuse of any bag or container that has been in contact with any substance in a manner such as to compromise the organic integrity of an organically produced product or ingredient placed in those containers unless such reusable bag or container has been thoroughly cleaned and possesses no risk of contact of the organically produced product or ingredient with the substance used." Yes, that’s all one sentence.

That generates a couple of questions; what is considered an appropriate method of cleaning a roster? Does a throwaway roast of organic coffee suffice? What forbidden products actually survive the heat of roasting and thus pose a threat?

To explore. The second question I looked into arsenic, one of the forbidden substances.

The melting point for arsenic is 817 degrees Celsius. It’s volatilization occurs around 300 to 600 degrees Celsius.

To put that in perspective, light roasted beans are typically ejected from the machine at a being temp on 177 to 204 degrees Celsius. This roast level would include the very light Nordic style of roasts.

Dark roasted beans are typically ejected from the machine at a being temperature around 224 to 232 degrees Celsius or higher. This roast level produces dark brown to black coffee beans, often with a wet sheen of oil on the surface.

The environment or ambient temperatures of the roasting drum can exceed 700 degrees Celsius by the end of even a light roast, depending on the design of the machine and the time and temperature profile applied by the operator.

Therefore the rate at which arsenic is removed from a coffee bean depends on the design of the machine and the roast profile used. Longer and darker roasts have a better chance of removing more arsenic than shorter and lighter roasts.

Arsenic is classified as a class or group one carcinogen by the International Agency of Research on Cancer. It is found naturally in soils and in water, both fresh and salt water. Sources include volcanic emissions, rock weathering, and discharged from hot Springs.

Arsenic is also used in pesticides and fertilizers though more so outside the U.S. Within the U.S. Use of arsenic and fertilizers and pesticides is restricted and limited to organic arsenic compounds in a limited number of approved uses.

Plants take up arsenic through the soil and water and transport it throughout the plant via vascular tissue and can store or compartmentalize it in organelles within cells. Therefore, if arsenic is present in coffee beans, it’s present at the cellular level. And not necessarily as a coating on the outside of the seed where it could be easily removed or transferred to another surface.

However, when we roast coffee, we impart physical changes that include fracturing of cell walls, increasing the size of micro pores, and creating micro fissures within the bean. The pressure within the bean increases and begins to force liquified lipids and other compounds to the surface of the bean.

It is possible that the fracturing, fissuring, and internal pressure inside the bean and the volatilization of arsenic, that results from the roasting process releases arsenic into the machine, contaminating surfaces.

But this generates more questions such as; at what levels is arsenic released from the beans? At what rate is it then transferred from the surfaces of the machines back to beans. And at what rate is arsenic transferred from roasted and ground beans into water during the brewing and extraction phase?

Something, I haven’t looked deeply into; certain arsenic compounds and certain iron molecules tend to chemically bond with each other well. Many of the components of a roaster, especially the drum contain iron.

Here’s a quote from one of the articles I read:

" The affinity of arsenic with iron oxyhydroxides and oxides is known at least since 1835 when Robert Bunsen used iron hydroxides to revert arsenic poisonings. "

Understanding arsenics’ affinity for iron oxide and the levels and nature of iron oxides in a given roaster may help answer the question of how to clean a roaster.

If arsenic is adsorbed and fixed in a roaster in this way, I doubt a throw away roast alone with sufficiently clean the roaster. Souza and Ciminelli also state in their article that using iron to fix arsenic does not get arsenic levels in contaminated water down to safe levels.

One of the great points recently made when I was having this conversation with another coffee professional is what is the implication for smallholders who can’t necessarily afford the time or the expertise to produce organically? Also, how does the money flow and who really benefits from organic certification?

I think my case represents an interesting one. I purchased a certified organic intermediate product, which is the unroasted coffee, solely because of its origin, it’s sensorial attributes, and its cost. In that order. I wanted a coffee from Oaxaca, Mexico that I could present as a balanced, clean, chocolate-forward coffee at a cost from which I could make a profit.

I don’t add an organic premium to my price because I can’t legally market it as certified organic. Even though I paid a premium when I bought a certified organic green coffee.

The premium I paid, went to the distributor who sold me the coffee. Presumably that distributor paid a premium to the co-op when they bought it.

Ultimately in my case, the certified organic status was not what sold the intermediate product. It was the origin, the quality, and the cost. Is the quality a result of being organically grown? I’m sure it has an effect, even if that effect is only in the fact that it was thoughtfully produced, following a strict and regimented process.

Because I’m not selling the Mexico Oaxaca coffee as an organic coffee. I potentially become the last stop for any benefits of the producers that may result from it being marketed as certified organic. People looking for an organic coffee, won’t likely find what I’m selling and those who do may choose not to buy it because I’ve broken its organic integrity.

But how impactful is that when I’ve already bought the intermediate product? Any money as a result of me buying it has already flowed through the system. Of course more demand from my version would likely generate more purchases of that intermediate product by me. So that’s certainly one benefit.

And this is a quote that I said in another article titled "Organic Coffee;" "Because it’s so difficult to calculate the net premium for producers, maybe it’s better to think of the premium as a way to subsidize producers’ efforts to improve living conditions and help improve use of natural resources."

And that brings us to the implications for the end user.

The way I have positioned my offering of a coffee that was organically grown is this; the buyer is buying a coffee that was grown without the addition of forbidden products. Their purchase could be considered an indirect reward to those farmers who put in the extra time, money, and effort to produce a certified organic product.

Have I contaminated the product by roasting it in a machine that also roasts non-certified organic products? Probably. But the level of contamination is not known. And its effects on health are not known. How much arsenic is naturally present in certified organic coffee? That isn’t tested as part of the certification process. The certification process does not test the levels of any contaminant.

If the buyer’s goal is to financially support and incentivize farmers to farm organically, then how the coffee is ultimately roasted has no impact on that goal. In fact. Loosening the roasting requirements and therefore making it easier to roast and sell certified organic coffee may actually increase sales.

If the buyer’s goal is to consume a coffee that contains less, or none of the forbidden substances then the roasting process likely impacts that goal. Maintaining organic integrity in this case is important and regulation of the roasting process is likely beneficial.

This is Michael with Oil Slick Coffee and that was me reading my article titled "Organically Grown Coffee".

Thank you for listening.