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Organic Coffee Certification, Production and Processing

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Excerpted from 'Organic Coffee, Certification, and Processing' by Sandra Marquardt, Mike Dill, and Jennifer Rose for Tea and Coffee Magazine

Organic coffee is distinct from other production methods in a number of ways.  The most important point is that it has a strict set of government standards unlike any other certification standard. These are established by the National Organic Program (NOP) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as it relates to agricultural crop production and must be able to verify that organic integrity is maintained throughout the process. This results in strong, traceable production and processing practices, providing consumers with the assurance that the organic coffee they are drinking is produced in a manner that they can trust.

Organic Production Principles:

Soil management:

Before any planting can occur, the land may not have had any prohibited substances applied for at least three years. Whether the land had been previously cultivated, organically or conventionally, or is a newly cultivated plot, the accredited certifying agency (ACA) must be able to verify the three-year absence of prohibited materials.

Growers seeking certification must be able to show distinct boundaries between adjacent non-certified land, with buffer zones in place to prevent unintentional drift of pesticides and fertilizers applied by surrounding growers. Buffer zones are especially important in split operations, where a grower may only have a portion of the plantation certified organic while the remaining portion is managed conventionally.

Organic System Plan:

Once the land is deemed certifiable by the ACA, growers must develop and maintain a plan, which is agreed upon and approved by the certifier. The plan must include written descriptions of practices and procedures that will be adhered to and monitored continuously to ensure organic integrity is not compromised during all aspects of production and handling. All fertility and pesticide inputs must be approved by the ACA, and it is the responsibility of the grower to document the use of all inputs.

Growers must implement tillage and cultivation practices that will maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil and water quality. As crop rotation is not a feasible option in coffee production and because coffee is mostly grown on hillsides, growers will plant permanent sod cover between rows to promote biological habitat, improve soil organic matter and, most importantly, help prevent erosion.

Pest management:
When it comes to pest, weed and disease prevention, the standards are similar to those in place for fertility management. Pests may be controlled through cultivation and sanitation practices along with mechanical traps and lures. Biological methods such as the introduction of predators and parasites and development of habitat for natural enemies of the pest are also allowed and encouraged. When these methods are not effective and a suitable non-synthetic substance is not available, growers may consult the National List for allowed synthetic substances.

Any material input intended for fertility, pest control, or disease prevention used on the plantation must be reviewed and approved by the ACA, be listed on the National List of allowed non-organic substances, or have been approved by an acceptable materials review program approved by the USDA. Inputs must be monitored for compliance during all stages of production, from pre-planting through harvest and storage.

Organic Processing Principles:

Unlike most other coffee certifications, the verification process does not stop at harvest. All coffee berries must be harvested and handled in accordance with NOP standards. Growers must develop procedures to ensure only coffee from certified plantations or the certified section of split operations is harvested. This is where it becomes critical that plantation boundaries are clearly identified. Field maps help ACAs and inspectors easily identify organic boundaries and plantings.

As most coffee is harvested by hand, plantation managers must ensure that any container or bag used during harvest has not previously contained or been treated with prohibited substances. To eliminate the potential for contamination, virgin or dedicated bags and bins should be used. If any of these previously contained non-organic material, an adequate cleaning step is necessary to remove the non-organic material or residue that may be present. Often color-coded, these bags or bins must be identifiable as containing organic coffee in storage and during post-harvest activities. If any of the bags previously contained non-organic material they must be cleaned to remove any non-organic material or residue that may be present.

Following harvest, the coffee berries go through several processing steps before being ready for export. These post-harvest activities must be included in the grower’s organic plan or, if carried out off-site, must be done at a certified facility. A processing plan must be agreed upon and approved by the ACA to ensure that all actions are compliant with NOP standards. For example, the plan must include a description of practices that will keep organic product segregated from conventional. All equipment, containers, and contact surfaces used in organic coffee processing must be free from contaminants coming from sanitizers and chemical pesticides as well as any remaining residue from non-organic products.

In addition, procedures must be in place to maintain water and soil quality. As the pulping and de-husking process produces a large amount of solid waste and uses a vast quantity of water, procedures to manage this waste must be in place. Solid waste in the form plant residue may be incorporated back into the plantation as compost and must be kept from entering streams and rivers. Additionally, there need to be methods for recycling water used for processing.

Following the completion of post-harvest processing, the green coffee beans are bagged and exported. If the bagging occurs off-site, handling must take place at an organic-certified facility. If this handling operation handles conventional coffee as well, an approved plan must be in place to prevent commingling of organic and conventional coffee. Equipment must be cleaned to ensure removal of non-organic residue. Depending on the sanitizer used, a rinse step with water may be required to prevent contamination by sanitizer residue. All bags must also be clearly identified as organic.

Once ready for export, bagged coffee is shipped in cleaned or organic dedicated containers to either a storage facility or directly to the roaster. For the finished product to be labeled as organic, it must be roasted at an organic-certified facility, unless the roaster is exempt from the requirements of certification (i.e., less than $5,000 annual sales in organic products). The roaster must protect the organic integrity of the certified coffee from the moment it receives and stores green beans through the roasting and retail packing process. As most roasters handle both organic and conventional beans, it is critical to prevent contamination and commingling during this final step.

If the operation does not have a dedicated roaster or grinder for organic beans, it must implement measures to remove all non-organic residues from equipment. This is most effectively done by conducting a purge or flush with organic beans in which a pre-determined amount of organic beans is run through the roaster and/or grinder to flush out all residues that could not be removed through physical cleaning. The amount used for flushing the system must be agreed upon by the ACA and the operator. The beans used for this flush must be disposed of or sold as non-organic as they would not be eligible for organic representation. The beans following the flush will be deemed organic compliant.

Organic integrity and prevention of contamination and commingling are the basis for many of the requirements in coffee production.However, no rules or laws can strengthen the organic integrity more than the commitment of the operations to follow the production standards with care and honesty.