The Zero Waste Coffee Project

Upcycled coffee by-products and food safety. Challenges for coffee producers

Even if it seems to be a slow process, the interest in upcycled coffee by-products from coffee processing is growing steadily. Besides being used for energy generation through biogas, briquettes or pellets (or loose as usual in the case of parchments), it is the food sector that is turning its eyes to these raw materials as a source for new beverages and food. Critical to the successful transformation of coffee by-products into food products however, is their food safety. The problem for coffee producers to introduce and maintain the necessary requirements is multi-layered. 

On the one hand, there are no standardised processing methods. Neither for Cascara, nor for mucilage, nor for pulp fruit juice, nor for anything else. Even for Cascara, currently the best known product, there is no published research on optimal drying or storage methods; and processing-specific HACCP (too expensive for many producers and too time-consuming in daily practice!) has only been implemented by extremely few producers. GAP (Good Agricultural Practice), which is a very important step towards food safety, on the other hand, is attracting more and more attention.

On the other hand, very few producers can cover the costs of the necessary laboratory analyses, and these are not few: nutrition facts, pesticides, heavy metal, microbiological contaminants, aflatoxins (including ochratoxin A), toxicology, allergens, maybe antioxidants (e.g. ORAC) and caffeine content. All this and sometimes on top of an organic, UTZ, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and other certification( s). 

In my experience, many producers, especially smaller ones, simply lack access to information on which analyses are important and necessary for specific products for the buyer. It is important to remember that hardly any coffee producers (farm/mill) have ever had laboratory analyses carried out on their coffees, and if they have, then usually only in the case of suspected presence of Ochratoxin A, sometimes also for heavy metals or storage-related contamination by mould. 

With by-products, however, the situation is completely different. Pulp and mucilage are highly sensitive to contamination by micro-organisms, insects can leave faeces in the pulp, aflatoxins can already be present on the unharvested coffee cherries and much more. Laboratory analyses that help to guarantee food safety are therefore indispensable. This is all new for some producers and it will certainly take some time to communicate the necessity of laboratory tests. A decisive factor for successful communication will be the willingness of buyers to accept the costs that are passed on to the product quantity (in order to pass them on to consumers later, of course). 

It should be noted that a test sample only gives us information about a very small section of a specific product volume. Extrapolations from a single sample to the total product volume must therefore always be viewed with caution. In combination with GAP (Good Agricultural Practice) and HACCP (and/or GMP - Good Manufacturing Practice and GHP - Good Handling Practice)*, sample analyses are an important element in guaranteeing the food safety of a product. 

*for general information see: https://www.ams.usda.gov/services/auditing/gap-ghp

That is not all however. Depending on the country, it can be difficult and costly for producers to find a laboratory that can carry out all the necessary analyses. A Cascara sample of a smaller production from our roastery, sent from the Michiti co-op in south-west Ethiopia to a lab in Addis Ababa, came back with incomplete analyses. For the missing analyses, the sample would have had to be sent to another lab. And this would have caused further expense and additional shipping costs for the co-op.

In retrospect, the difficulties faced by producers who want to guarantee food safety for their product are: 

- no standardised processing methods 

- high costs for laboratory analyses and HAACP etc. 

- lack of access to information 

- difficulty in finding a suitable laboratory.

For this reason, we consider it necessary and efficient to set up one or more laboratories in different countries, that 

- are exclusively focused on the needs of producers of upcycled coffee by-products

- offer low-cost analyses

- are publicised to producers through coffee-specific, national and international networks.

The investment and operational costs for one or more such laboratories are of course immense. An alternative could therefore be an institution like Tecnosoluciones or a model based on it. Tecnosoluciones is a sales partner of an international network of over 800 laboratories in 50 countries and offers its services in Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico and South America (and recently in a very limited capacity for the floriculture sector in Kenya). It, is, so to speak, the "point of contact" for samples to be analysed by a laboratory.

Depending on the desired analyses, Tecnosoluciones, as a partner company responsible for the field work, forwards the samples to one or more of the 800 or so laboratories that are specialised in specific test areas. Tecnosoluciones does not perform any tests itself; it is the link between producers and a network of specialised laboratories.

What has been said for the laboratories applies in exactly the same way to HACCP, GMP, etc.

All this is feasible and recommendable for producers with higher volumes. For smaller producers, on the other hand, it is extremely difficult to bear the financial burden of everything required for food safety. Even if financing is possible, the sales price for small quantities of products increases significantly. Unfortunately this certainly does not increase the number of interested buyers. 

The crucial question is: which solutions or alternatives can be found for small producers?