Java Jinxes: Turning to Tech to Verify Coffee Origin

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Coffee is highly susceptible to fraudulent labeling, which is alarming given the cost for gourmet beans. But now science and technology have combined to ensure that consumers get exactly what they’re paying for.

By Russ Banham

Dell Perspectives

Coffee is one of the world’s most-traded products, up there with wheat, soybeans, and barley. But unlike those goods, coffee is highly susceptible to adulteration and fraudulent labeling.

Tainted coffee is nearly as old as coffee itself. The use of cheap substitutes adding weight to coffee beans and other commodities to increase their price dates back to the Middle Ages. Laws banning the practice were enacted in the 13th century, but they didn’t stop the addition of harmful substances like lead, sand, and dirt to coffee beans well into the 18th century.

Today, other products added to coffee beans achieve similar aims. A 2017 study of food fraud listed coffee as one of six major agricultural products (along with olive oil and honey) adulterated with non-coffee matter, such as twigs, chicory, soybean, barley, corn husks, and sugar, in addition to inferior coffee beans. None of this information is provided on the label, however.

How much of the world’s coffee production is adulterated is open to question, due to the lack of sufficient testing. Nevertheless, sample testing by the Quadram Institute in England suggests that as much as one-third of coffee beans labeled as 100 percent Arabica has non-Arabica content. The findings results prompted the institute’s estimate that fraud in the industry ranges between 5 and 20 percent.

Given what consumers pay for high-priced coffee beans, these figures are alarming. The two primary types of coffee beans, Arabica and Robusta, each have a unique flavor and aroma that affect cost, with Arabica, a species of coffee beans originally from Ethiopia’s Coffea arabica plant, commanding the higher price (Robusta is another species, originally from sub-Saharan Africa). But where the beans are grown makes an even bigger difference. Kona coffee produced in the Kailuea-Kona region of Hawaii’s Big Island, for instance, is made from higher-priced Arabica beans, but so is coffee produced in Columbia. But a 2-pound bag of Kona coffee retails for about $75, more than twice the price of a 2-pound bag of Columbian coffee.

No two coffees are alike, due to such factors as soil composition, rainfall, and sunshine, which combine to give different coffees their distinguishing characteristics. The flavor and aroma of Kona coffee, for example, is described as a blend of chocolate, honey, and fruit. These characteristics derive from the region’s mineral-rich dark volcanic soil, humid weather, and high mountain elevation.

Consumers savoring such flavors pay a premium to satisfy their cravings. But are they really buying 100 percent Kona coffee? In many cases, they’re not, a tale that is being told through science technology.

Kona Baloney

A case in point is a false-labeling lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle in 2019. The plaintiffs include several Kona coffee farmers that allege the market has been flooded with generic commodity coffee products labeled as Kona coffee. The defendants range from coffee wholesalers and distributors to several retail giants.

“Objectively speaking, our perspective is you cannot have the volume of coffee labeled as `100 percent Kona’ or `Kona blend’ based on the available supply of coffee,” says Paul Richard Brown, an attorney at Karr Tuttle Campbell, the Seattle-based law firm that filed the lawsuit on behalf of the farmers, along with attorneys at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein.

Approximately 2.7 million pounds of authentic Kona coffee beans are grown annually, yet more than 20 million pounds labeled as Kona are sold at retail, a “physical impossibility” that suggests “someone is lying” about the contents of the Kona coffee products, the lawsuit states. Some suppliers are alleged to have little to no Kona coffee in their products, from small single-digit percentages down to zero.

Elementary, My Dear Watson

Science and technology have combined over the centuries to set the record straight on food adulterants. Fredrick Accum’s 1820 book A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons, describes, for the first time, the use of microscopes to detect different toxic substances and other additives in a variety of commodities. The next stage of scientific inquiry was the use of chromatography techniques in the early 1900s to separate mixtures into their component materials.

The first gas chromatographic method to evaluate the possibility of coffee adulteration was introduced in 1958, differentiating between coffee and chicory. In the 1980s, the development of high-performance liquid chromatography provided the means to distinguish different species of coffee beans. Other techniques include elemental and isotopic abundance analyses to determine the concentrations of different elements in relation to the concentrations of other elements.

Today, at Brazil’s Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, scientists are coupling ultra-performance liquid chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry, an analytical technique involving the fragmentation of selected ions to reveal chemical structures, to identify the specific region where coffee beans are grown. “A chromatographic method that includes mass spectrometry to detect different compounds offers high reliability in distinguishing between different substances and the concentrations of these substances,” says Victor de Carvalho Martins, the lead member of a team of chemists using these analytical techniques in the university’s laboratory.

“By identifying compounds known as chlorogenic acids, which are widely present in coffee samples, we can characterize coffee labeled as `Ethiopian’ down to the different cities where it was grown in the country, determining at a high level of accuracy the chemical markers of geographic origin,” he says.

In sampling products labeled as Kona by various defendants in the Kona farmer false labeling lawsuit, scientists relied on elemental and isotopic abundance analyses. The tests indicated the cobalt-to-zinc ration and the manganese-to-nickel ratio in several samples “were well outside the range of authentic Kona,” the lawsuit states.

A sample of one wholesaler’s Kona coffee beans, for instance, was found to have 120 times as much manganese as nickel, whereas authentic Kona coffee averages less than 40 times as much manganese to nickel. An article in the LA Times suggests the defendants will argue that the scientific analyses are “not reliable or enlightening,” and contend that “Kona” is a place name and not a trademark, much like Belgian waffles and Peking duck.

What’s Next?

The various analytical techniques to ferret out the authenticity of coffee is just the first step in reducing the risk of counterfeit beans. Several coffee providers and brands like Folgers, Onda Origins, and Nestlé have invested in blockchain platforms to authenticate the origin of coffee products and provide this information to consumers via a secured QR code on the item, which can be scanned with a smartphone app.

Such investments are needed, de Carvalho Martins says. “Most coffee producing regions are in underdeveloped countries where the coffee industry plays an important role in the economy. For each country to develop their coffee industry and ensure the image of good products, it is necessary to make investments in analytical instrumentation and other authentication and verification methods.”

He’s correct in the importance of coffee to many developing economies. In Colombia, for example, a 10 percent increase in coffee production equates to a 3.4 percent rise in GDP. “The economic future of many countries depends in part on the purity of their coffee products,” de Carvalho Martins says.

Russ Banham is a Pulitzer-nominated business journalist and best-selling author.

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