CoffeeNate #29 :: How to Decode Coffee Labels


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Maybe you’ve seen them, maybe you haven’t…the tree frog, the half black / half white dude with baskets in his/her hand, or perhaps a flock of Smithsonian birds on your coffee labels?  What the heck do these coffee certification labels mean to us, the consumer?  Watch the vid and keep reading to find out!

USDA CERTIFIED ORGANIC COFFEE

To be certified ‘organic’ a product must be cultivated without the use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, synthetic materials, and also must be not be genetically engineered.

As a side note, the vast majority of coffee farmers are not very educated.  This leads to the misuse of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.  Many farmers unknowingly pollute their community drinking water, killing the natural flora and fauna, while poisoning themselves.  In addition, most do not wear the required protective clothing either.  When you buy organic, you are supporting methods that promote better living conditions for the farmers, their communities, as well as the surrounding wildlife.

Fair Trade Certified

Fair Trade Certification ensures that the producers of the coffee receive a fair price for their coffee.  This program works with farmers to help them develop themselves as businessmen, inspiring them to work together with other farmers to not only provide for their families, but to make investments in their communities.  When a producer becomes Fair Trade Certified they are educated in sustainable growing techniques such as organic farming methods, and shade growing coffee.   Farmers that are certified are guaranteed a premium price for their coffee, and also receive additional premiums if they switch to sustainable growing methods.

Rainforest Alliance

Rainforest Alliance certification is directed towards preservation of natural eco-systems and helping coffee farms to produce their crops with very little or no impact on the natural surrounding habitat through reduction of waste, water usage, and improved efficiency.  They also work to improve the quality of life for the employees of the farm, ensuring fair wages,  decent living areas, and access to school, health care, and clean drinking water.

Smithsonian Bird Friendly

This certification, as you’ve probably already guessed, is focused on preserving the habitat of the indigenous bird populations of the tropical areas where coffee grows.  Much of the natural trees have been clear-cut, or nearly clear-cut, to provide more acreage for planting coffee trees.  This has also caused a greater need for pesticides to ward off the bugs that were not an issue with natural canopy shade growing methods.

In addition to the focus on shade growing techniques there is also the added benefit that all ‘Bird Friendly’ coffee is also certified organic.  There is also a bit of the Fair Trade aspect of a premium price for producers.

My overall favorite site to purchase sustainable coffee is Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.  They are easy to deal with and offer a huge variety of coffees to try.  I like how they have details about where the coffee came from, right down to the farmer!  They have a great coffee buying club that gets you a discount of $1 per bag and you don’t have to order a minimum amount, nor do you have to order at any frequency.  Pay them a visit!

Comparison Chart by SCAA.org

While none of the above programs are perfect, nor can they solve all of the injustices going on in the coffee growing regions of the world, but it is a start.  It helps us as consumers to educate ourselves on what is going on, and what we can do to at least contribute in a small way.  Check out the .pdf chart to the left, it was published by SCAA.org, and it is a great side by side comparison of various sustainable coffee certifications.  It also has contact info for each group as well.  Please feel free to contact me with any additional questions you may have on this topic.  Just leave a comment below, or if you are shy you can click ‘contact’ at the top of the page 🙂

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Nate

Nate is a special kind of coffee lover. He began drinking the same swill that most others do, but thought there must be something better out there. Sure enough, he was right, even more so than he ever dreamed possible. He soon found his way into the specialty coffee industry, and was tasting exceptional coffees from dozens of roasters from around the country. He is now committed to teaching others how they can appreciate coffee, and how they can make the best coffee in town and save money at the same time! Cheers c[_]

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  • mikecrimmins

    I support all of these labels and try to buy them as often as possible, but to what extent do they really help the farmers and the land? I think that there has to be a better a solution to improve the life and the land of the farmers that are growing the beans for the best drink in the world. Anyways, I was thinking about this yesterday when I was trying to come up with my weekly poll. I ended up going with how much coffee do you drink, but next week it's going to be something about do you buy coffee because of the fair trade, etc label.

  • mikecrimmins

    I support all of these labels and try to buy them as often as possible, but to what extent do they really help the farmers and the land? I think that there has to be a better a solution to improve the life and the land of the farmers that are growing the beans for the best drink in the world.

    Anyways, I was thinking about this yesterday when I was trying to come up with my weekly poll. I ended up going with how much coffee do you drink, but next week it's going to be something about do you buy coffee because of the fair trade, etc label.

    • Yeah Mike, great point…but there isn't anything else right now. These programs are great, but not perfect. Short of having a direct relationship with the farmer, paying above market value, and making additional investments into their communities, this is it. Even if a company did all of these things as I have just mentioned, how would we as consumers know that they are being truthful about it? Sadly, there are many roasters that purchase a small amount of direct trade beans from an independent farmer and then make blanket statements about how they purchase direct trade coffee. At least with these certifications, we can know for sure that certain guidelines are being followed. I do agree though, more can be done. Take care Mike and thanks for faithfully dropping in!

  • nate_s

    Yeah Mike, great point…but there isn't anything else right now. These programs are great, but not perfect. Short of having a direct relationship with the farmer, paying above market value, and making additional investments into their communities, this is it. Even if a company did all of these things as I have just mentioned, how would we as consumers know that they are being truthful about it? Sadly, there are many roasters that purchase a small amount of direct trade beans from an independent farmer and then make blanket statements about how they purchase direct trade coffee. At least with these certifications, we can know for sure that certain guidelines are being followed. I do agree though, more can be done. Take care Mike and thanks for faithfully dropping in!

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  • @thecoffeedaily

    I've done some reporting on certification issues before – did a dive into recycling labels for packaging – and I think the biggest problem is often the lack of a single, clear, universal standard and that's in danger of becoming a problem with coffee these days as all these label proliferate. It's one thing for those of us who love our coffee and have done some reading and research on each of these labels but it's unreasonable to expect most consumers to spend the time required to know what they mean. There really ought to be single, global standards that score the coffee in an easily-understandable way across all the main areas (labor practices, environmental practices, etc). Once you have that it's easier to administer improvements and at least try to hold people accountable for it.

  • I've done some reporting on certification issues before – did a dive into recycling labels for packaging – and I think the biggest problem is often the lack of a single, clear, universal standard and that's in danger of becoming a problem with coffee these days as all these label proliferate. It's one thing for those of us who love our coffee and have done some reading and research on each of these labels but it's unreasonable to expect most consumers to spend the time required to know what they mean. There really ought to be single, global standards that score the coffee in an easily-understandable way across all the main areas (labor practices, environmental practices, etc). Once you have that it's easier to administer improvements and at least try to hold people accountable for it.

    • Exactumundo! You are absolutely correct, these programs, while all similar, are only producing a limited amount of actual change. Just think if all of these programs could come together and use their unified efforts to effect change. They all have the same objective; to improve coffee communities, their natural environments, and improving working conditions. I'm inspired to contact the major certification groups to get their take on a unified certification for coffee in particular. There are coffees available that are certified by multiple programs, but you pay through the a$$ for them! There must be something more…

  • nate_s

    Exactumundo! You are absolutely correct, these programs, while all similar, are only producing a limited amount of actual change. Just think if all of these programs could come together and use their unified efforts to effect change. They all have the same objective; to improve coffee communities, their natural environments, and improving working conditions. I'm inspired to contact the major certification groups to get their take on a unified certification for coffee in particular. There are coffees available that are certified by multiple programs, but you pay through the a$$ for them! There must be something more…

  • Ashley

    Hi Nate – I do agree with the whole fair trade picture and what it stands for in the coffee industry. There is however another side to this… It is the issue of the green house gases produced by roasters. The roasting process is a major contributor to pollution. This is one of the reasons I have choosen to use the roaster that I currenly use at Coffee Cravings – The roaster is Classic Gourmet Coffee from Concord Ontario – I am leaving a link to a recent article for you to read – thought you might like to read it. Classic Gourmet produces 50% less emissions than the standard roasting process – So yes I agree with fair trade / organic and the principles behind it – but the question becomes – how can we take it one step further…__<a href="http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/your-business/business-categories/sustainability/a-cuppa-joe-easy-on-the-energy/article1444968/&quot; target="_blank">http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business…</a>

  • Ashley

    Hi Nate – I do agree with the whole fair trade picture and what it stands for in the coffee industry. There is however another side to this… It is the issue of the green house gases produced by roasters. The roasting process is a major contributor to pollution. This is one of the reasons I have choosen to use the roaster that I currenly use at Coffee Cravings – The roaster is Classic Gourmet Coffee from Concord Ontario – I am leaving a link to a recent article for you to read – thought you might like to read it. Classic Gourmet produces 50% less emissions than the standard roasting process – So yes I agree with fair trade / organic and the principles behind it – but the question becomes – how can we take it one step further…__http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business

    • Thanks Ashley! I appreciate your comments, and many others share your view. While I don't like to discuss potentially polarizing political topics on this forum, I personally do not believe that emissions contribute to climate change. I'm not saying that we shouldn't pollute less, of course we should do what we can to make our world cleaner. The Earth we live in is an amazing thing, capable of renewing and regenerating itself in unbelievable ways. Thank God, because there have been some environmental atrocities for sure. I guess my point is that I have a unique position on this topic, surely to tick people off on both sides of the issue 😉 I'm an advocate for organic, non-GMO, and less pollution in general…but I'm not a proponent of the 'man-made climate change' movement. In my opinion, this is simply a money grab.

      • Having said that, I would definitely purchase the same type of roaster as you have for Coffee Cravings, provided it produced a quality roast (which I imagine it does 🙂 , and the cost was reasonably competitive with conventional roasters. Thanks again for dropping in and posting your article! It certainly is thought provoking to think about those that do hold the opinion that man made emissions contribute to climate change. These folks likely do not consider what happens to these beans once they are processed. They would likely prefer to purchase from a roaster that is using methods that produce half the emissions as compared to conventional roasters. If you retail through your site, feel free to fill in the 'url' field with your website info next time you post. 🙂

  • nate_s

    Thanks Ashley! I appreciate your comments, and many others share your view. While I don't like to discuss potentially polarizing political topics on this forum, I personally do not believe that emissions contribute to climate change. I'm not saying that we shouldn't pollute less, of course we should do what we can to make our world cleaner. The Earth we live in is an amazing thing, capable of renewing and regenerating itself in unbelievable ways. Thank God, because there have been some environmental atrocities for sure. I guess my point is that I have a unique position on this topic, surely to tick people off on both sides of the issue 😉 I'm an advocate for organic, non-GMO, and less pollution in general…but I'm not a proponent of the 'man-made climate change' movement. In my opinion, this is simply a money grab.

  • nate_s

    Having said that, I would definitely purchase the same type of roaster as you have for Coffee Cravings, provided it produced a quality roast (which I imagine it does 🙂 , and the cost was reasonably competitive with conventional roasters. Thanks again for dropping in and posting your article! It certainly is thought provoking to think about those that do hold the opinion that man made emissions contribute to climate change. These folks likely do not consider what happens to these beans once they are processed. They would likely prefer to purchase from a roaster that is using methods that produce half the emissions as compared to conventional roasters. If you retail through your site, feel free to fill in the 'url' field with your website info next time you post. 🙂

  • Dr. Ann Voisin

    Robusta organic coffee growers are having some problems with genetically engineered Robusta plants because often the two are separated by less than a few hundred yards. As a result, cross pollination is quite common. In other words, eventually, it will be difficult to tell one type of plant from another, unless we can somehow stop wind from blowing. Without complete DNA or RNA analysis, an expensive process, on every plant, the information in terms of what kind of coffee bean is being used is just not reliable. As a College very interested in these kinds of subjects, any involvement of people interested in organic coffee is appreciated. Dr. Ann

  • Robusta organic coffee growers are having some problems with genetically engineered Robusta plants because often the two are separated by less than a few hundred yards.

    As a result, cross pollination is quite common.

    In other words, eventually, it will be difficult to tell one type of plant from another, unless we can somehow stop wind from blowing. Without complete DNA or RNA analysis, an expensive process, on every plant, the information in terms of what kind of coffee bean is being used is just not reliable.

    As a College very interested in these kinds of subjects, any involvement of people interested in organic coffee is appreciated.

    Dr. Ann

    We are grateful to ToysPeriod which has paid the tuitions of several students attending Linda Christas College who are studying for their bachelors degree in business with an emphasis in environmental sustainability. ToysPeriod is a leading online shop specializing in lego sets and model railroad equipment.

    • Hello Ann, you make an excellent point! While North American has outlawed GMO plants of any type, I'm certain that this is not the case in most coffee growing regions. GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) are thought by many to be the downfall of the world's food supply. What happens when various genetically engineered plants cross pollinate with each other, then with natural plants? What will the end result be? I have no answers on this, only questions! Thought provoking for sure.

  • AbbyfromRA

    Hi Nate – Thanks for including us in your piece! I just wanted to clarify that in the Sustainable Agriculture Network Standard required for Rainforest Alliance certification, there's an equal balance between environmental and social criteria (plus economic criteria), so it's not mostly focused on the environment. If we don't focus on the social and economic aspects as well, farms can't truly be sustainable. Thanks! Abby

  • Hi Nate – Thanks for including us in your piece! I just wanted to clarify that in the Sustainable Agriculture Network Standard required for Rainforest Alliance certification, there's an equal balance between environmental and social criteria (plus economic criteria), so it's not mostly focused on the environment. If we don't focus on the social and economic aspects as well, farms can't truly be sustainable.
    Thanks!
    Abby

    • Awesome Abby! Thanks for clarifying that . I guess it's just the perception that I got from what I've read, but you would know more than me! What are your thoughts about a unified certification, where all of the leading organizations developed a single all-inclusive program? Is it doable? Why? Thanks again!!

  • nate_s

    Awesome Abby! Thanks for clarifying that . I guess it's just the perception that I got from what I've read, but you would know more than me! What are your thoughts about a unified certification, where all of the leading organizations developed a single all-inclusive program? Is it doable? Why? Thanks again!!

  • nate_s

    Hello Ann, you make an excellent point! While North American has outlawed GMO plants of any type, I'm certain that this is not the case in most coffee growing regions. GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) are thought by many to be the downfall of the world's food supply. What happens when various genetically engineered plants cross pollinate with each other, then with natural plants? What will the end result be? I have no answers on this, only questions! Thought provoking for sure.

  • @BirdsandBeansNY

    A unified certification sounds like a great idea, if you could coordinate all the agencies involved. The Bird Friendly® certification by the Smithsonian is the best bet, in terms of knowing what kind of coffee beans you are actually getting: 100% USDA organic, and 100% shade grown. They inspect the farms in person before providing certification. Some coffees with shadegrown labels only have 30% shadegrown beans in them. I’ve found Birds and Beans coffee here in New York, in a number of shops in the Hudson Valley. Lately I’ve been ordering at birdsandbeans with a bunch of friends, so shipping comes down to about 75 cents per bag. You don’t have to spend big bucks to get multiple certified coffee!

  • A unified certification sounds like a great idea, if you could coordinate all the agencies involved. The Bird Friendly® certification by the Smithsonian is the best bet, in terms of knowing what kind of coffee beans you are actually getting: 100% USDA organic, and 100% shade grown. They inspect the farms in person before providing certification. Some coffees with shadegrown labels only have 30% shadegrown beans in them. I've found Birds and Beans coffee here in New York, in a number of shops in the Hudson Valley. Lately I've been ordering online at http://www.birdsandbeans.com with a bunch of friends, so shipping comes down to about 75 cents per bag. You don't have to spend big bucks to get multiple certified coffee!

    • Thanks for your post and your passion. I don't think you can say that Bird Friendly is the "best" If you only have to meet certification once every three years, then you could do whatever you want for the following 3 year period following certification. There isn't enough being given to the coffee growing farmers' communities either. There are great aspects of each certification, I think a unified label is the best bet to promote awareness, defray expenses, and ensure that consumers can easily identify with the label.

      PS
      Please only include your link in your screen name, not in the post. Also, I appreciate the referral to the site, but don't make it sound like your are speaking from a consumer's point of view when you clearly have a professional connection to them. Thank you.

    • Having said that, I am interested in learning more about Birds & Beans coffees! I sent them a message…waiting for a response regarding a review. 🙂

  • nate_s

    Thanks for your post and your passion. I don't think you can say that Bird Friendly is the &quot;best&quot; If you only have to meet certification once every three years, then you could do whatever you want for the following 3 year period following certification. There isn't enough being given to the coffee growing farmers' communities either. There are great aspects of each certification, I think a unified label is the best bet to promote awareness, defray expenses, and ensure that consumers can easily identify with the label. PS Please only include your link in your screen name, not in the post. Also, I appreciate the referral to the site, but don't make it sound like your are speaking from a consumer's point of view when you clearly have a professional connection to them. Thank you.

  • nate_s

    Having said that, I am interested in learning more about Birds &amp; Beans coffees! I sent them a message…waiting for a response regarding a review. 🙂

  • Banks Thomas

    Hi Nate, I agree with most of what you are saying about direct trade, however I do think that this is the way to go. I'm the Director of Coffee for Salt Spring Coffee, as you may know we were one of the first 100% Organic and Fair Trade coffee roasters in BC. We have been working closely with co-op's in Peru and Nicaragua for years now, and as of this year we are dropping the Transfair logo on these coffees and going with our own Direct Trade logo. All of the coffee that we buy from these regions will be bought directly not just some. Here is the list of rules that we hold ourselves to: -We pay a minimum of 25% above the fair trade base price. -We establish long-term commitments (3-5 years), providing security to farmers and co-op's -Transactions and contracts are fully transparent to all buyers and sellers. -We visit each of our coffee growing communities at least once every three years. ( We visit Nicaragua and Peru every year, we put at least every three because we hope to expand this program to Sumatra and Ethiopia in the near future and they are much harder to get to.) -We work with these co-ops to raise the quality of their coffees year after year. -We purchase only from certified organic farms and co-op. I'm sure that there are roasters that are using Direct Trade as a way to make more money, but there are also many roasters like us that really care and want something better for the farming communities. I would advise consumers to do a little research on the roasters direct trade programs and ask questions. Thank you, very cool website. Banks

  • Hi Nate,

    I agree with most of what you are saying about direct trade, however I do think that this is the way to go. I'm the Director of Coffee for Salt Spring Coffee, as you may know we were one of the first 100% Organic and Fair Trade coffee roasters in BC. We have been working closely with co-op's in Peru and Nicaragua for years now, and as of this year we are dropping the Transfair logo on these coffees and going with our own Direct Trade logo. All of the coffee that we buy from these regions will be bought directly not just some. Here is the list of rules that we hold ourselves to:

    -We pay a minimum of 25% above the fair trade base price.
    -We establish long-term commitments (3-5 years), providing security to farmers and co-op's
    -Transactions and contracts are fully transparent to all buyers and sellers.
    -We visit each of our coffee growing communities at least once every three years. ( We visit Nicaragua and Peru every year, we put at least every three because we hope to expand this program to Sumatra and Ethiopia in the near future and they are much harder to get to.)
    -We work with these co-ops to raise the quality of their coffees year after year.
    -We purchase only from certified organic farms and co-op.

    I'm sure that there are roasters that are using Direct Trade as a way to make more money, but there are also many roasters like us that really care and want something better for the farming communities. I would advise consumers to do a little research on the roasters direct trade programs and ask questions.

    Thank you, very cool website.

    Banks

    • Thank you for that insight Banks! I agree that you can do better independently than Fair Trade, but it is up to the consumer to investigate the company, and that is not very easy to do. If a company, such as your own, with a long tradition of championing sustainable coffee, enters into a direct trade relationship outside of Fairtrade, then I think it is easier to buy into it as a consumer. I think it's important for the roaster to be transparent. I like what Green Mountain does for example. For each coffee they sell, there are details about the origins of the coffee, and the COOP/farm it was purchased from. It gives the consumer some insight into where this product originated from, and makes their purchasing transparent. Thank you again for your comments! 🙂

  • nate_s

    Thank you for that insight Banks! I agree that you can do better independently than Fair Trade, but it is up to the consumer to investigate the company, and that is not very easy to do. If a company, such as your own, with a long tradition of championing sustainable coffee, enters into a direct trade relationship outside of Fairtrade, then I think it is easier to buy into it as a consumer. I think it's important for the roaster to be transparent. I like what Green Mountain does for example. For each coffee they sell, there are details about the origins of the coffee, and the COOP/farm it was purchased from. It gives the consumer some insight into where this product originated from, and makes their purchasing transparent. Thank you again for your comments! 🙂