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Tuesday, 24 September, 2002, 11:25 GMT 12:25 UK
Coffee: Spilling the beans on quality

Ever had a nasty cup of coffee? As prices of raw coffee have slumped in recent years, so has the quality of what we drink.
Coffee drinkers may be swallowing ground up twigs, dust and floor sweepings as they sup their morning cup.

Some coffees contain up to 20% rogue ingredients, which can also include mouldy and unripe beans.

Coffee cup held in hand
In the balance: The future of coffee
While much of the coffee drunk in the UK is classed as "reasonable" or "high quality", there is alarm about some brands at the bottom end of the market.

And the plummeting price of raw coffee in recent years has made the problem worse.

Next week will see the introduction of the first international coffee mark, intended to raise overall standards across the world. But the depressed price of unroasted beans has forced cutbacks in the industry and some producing countries are expected to fall short of the tighter regulations.

Bean counter
85% of coffee consumed in UK homes is 'instant'

The average coffee drinker may find it hard immediately to identify "contaminated" coffee, especially if it contains only small amounts of defective ingredients.

But high concentrations of bad beans and so-called "foreign matter" are characterised by a bitter taste. Some brands on sale in British supermarkets contain up to a fifth of ingredients "not recognised as coffee", said a source at the International Coffee Organisation (ICO).

Defective beans are nothing new to coffee producers and come in all shapes and sizes including unripe, over-ripe or fermented beans. A common problem is frost-damaged beans, known as "stinkers" because they smell bad.

Coffee inspector in Costa Rica
Farming the raw beans, known as coffee "cherries"
And this is not something for drinkers of expensive coffee to be smug about. While rogue ingredients are more likely to be found in cheaper brands of instant coffee, they have also been detected in some fresh, ground varieties.

New processing techniques have intensified the problem.

Steaming of raw coffee at the processing stage is becoming increasingly common, according to coffee importer Simon Wakefield. The process helps neutralise the taste of defective ingredients, hiding the harsh flavours.

In hot water

Meanwhile, the nose-diving price of "green" coffee - raw beans - has hit producers hard, leading to cut-backs at the production stage.

Ken Livingstone and Frank Dobson
The experience could be bitter
"Producers have less money, they can't afford to pay for quality-control labour, fertilisers, insecticides and the like. They will pick whatever they have got from trees rather than take just the ripe cherries and they will process the whole lot and ship the whole lot," said Mr Wakefield.

Quality control procedures range from the relatively straight-forward - weighing beans - to more elaborate techniques - some producers use laser scanning to identify defective beans and other substandard ingredients.

Producers are now fearful that falling standards are giving coffee a bad name. Sales of coffee, the world's second most valuable commodity, after oil, have declined in countries such as the United States, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain.

Better latte than never

That led to calls for an international standard from the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe, which was adopted by the ICO, a body representing coffee exporting and importing nations.

Woman applying make-up
Bad beans could be used for cosmetics
On Tuesday delegates meeting in London for the 87th International Coffee Council will hear about plans to implement the "coffee quality-improvement programme" which comes into force next week and sets minimum standards for exportable coffee.

There are even alternative uses for poor coffee crops. These include using coffee beans in animal feed, as a form of fuel and extracting the oil for use in cosmetics.

Last week Oxfam launched a campaign to tackle the crisis in depressed coffee prices, caused by a global surplus of the commodity.

See also:

18 Sep 02 | Business
18 Sep 02 | Asia-Pacific
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