- The infused coffee segment is expected to grow at a rate of 8% between 2022 and 2029
- The rise of infused coffees could expose negligent food-hygiene practices in the coffee industry
- As it stands, the responsibility to implement changes falls solely on producers’ shoulders
IN RECENT years, coffee processing has become innovative and exciting. Exotic varieties and fermentation experiments can provide a world of possibilities. However, the industry as a whole has overlooked one crucial factor.
Food-safety regulatory systems apply to the whole food and beverage industry, yet it could be argued that the coffee sector’s approach has been more hands-off. Coffee is a food product. As with all food, it must be regulated at each stage of the supply chain to ensure it is safe for consumption.
Ruben Sorto Alvarado is a coffee and food products innovator based in Honduras. “The industry has changed a lot in the last 200 years since pasteurisation was invented,” he says. “But the coffee industry has lagged behind other food segments.”
It’s important to note that food safety in the coffee industry isn’t the sole responsibility of farmers. Once green coffee arrives with the buyer, roasters and baristas alike need to follow regulations to ensure it remains contaminant free as it continues along the supply chain. But for infused coffees, the conversation really does start on the farm.
As the limits of coffee fermentation are pushed, food safety inevitably becomes more of a concern. Yet, domestic or international regulatory bodies have generally avoided imposing any sanctions on producers and businesses.
As buyers increasingly demand more experimental coffees, food safety standards can often be relegated to a secondary concern. This issue has been a topic of greater discussion as infused coffees often use flavoured oils and external products from outside the coffee supply chain, which may have entirely different food safety regulations.
“These infused coffees that have emerged as a trend, at their foundation, are not coffee,” Ruben says. “Whatever you’re adding to your coffee, these [could be] highly hazardous practices. You can potentially damage your coffee, and you can potentially bring damaging bacteria, yeast or fungi into your coffee.”
There has been no stopping infused coffees from reaching a wider audience, however. And now they have something of a reputation, they are drawing attention to a broader conversation about food safety at farm level.
Infused coffees have exposed a wider problem
When fruits, nuts, essential oils, spices, or any other extraneous substances are added during fermentation, any molecule small enough will penetrate the walls of the coffee seed.
In effect, the coffee is being contaminated with food products that are completely foreign. Yet, when infused coffees are bought and sold, there is often no formal ingredient statement issued.
However, it is not that simple for farmers. Fermenting coffee with other ingredients has been an experiment that has been underway for some time; controversially, cinnamon has long since been a part of the conversation.
And as infusion could potentially open specialty coffee up to a wider audience, over-regulating it could be considered unfair – especially for the producer.
Furthermore, Ruben explains that most contaminants can be eradicated from the coffee when it’s roasted. This is often referred to as a “kill point” in food safety terms. “Our common sense tells us that if coffee is exposed to very high temperatures during roasting, that will eliminate any contamination. Brewing is a second thermal process that will eliminate contamination.”
Ultimately, however, he tells me that infused coffees are currently completely unregulated, and that has opened up a wider conversation about food hygiene in the industry.
“You can bring a risk to your consumer and a risk to your reputation as a coffee processor because if your coffee makes a person ill, you’ll suffer the consequences,” he says. “You are essentially introducing foreign contaminants with these additives and altering the microbial load of the coffee.”
Food hygiene regulations have been put in place to protect both consumers and producers. For consumers, these procedures ensure the appropriate handling of food products, as well as ensuring that allergen information is as evident as possible. For producers, food-safety regulations are a framework that guarantees your business is operating safely.
Where does the responsibility lie?
The specialty coffee industry often prides itself on transparency. But conversations about who is responsible for generating this transparency are perhaps some of the most pertinent.
“The next step after achieving GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) is having traceability,” explains Ruben. “This means that you have to document everything you do to your coffee from the farm to the processing facility. Having full disclosure and documents to assure the consumer.”
Ultimately, this would mean that additions would need to be labelled accordingly. Everything that enters the supply chain and isn’t from the coffee itself – including adding microorganisms or any artificial material – would be traced.
However, it is arguably not fair to burden producers with this responsibility – who already receive a less than proportionate share of profits and struggle to add value to their position in the supply chain.
Implementing a more thorough framework for food safety would also require upfront investment in software and the development of additional certifications. Asking producers to absorb these costs may well not be the best way to proceed.
At the same time, data collection for any additives must logically begin at the production stage – which means farmers, processors, and other local actors would have to be involved in some capacity.
Ultimately, if we are to regulate this space more heavily, collaboration is surely one of the most important components of the conversation. There are already food-safety frameworks that exist; it is a shared responsibility to ensure that they are appropriately enforced without putting additional financial pressure on coffee farmers.