As organic coffee has become mainstream over the past several years, it is important to consider the roles of growing, certifying, producing and processing organic coffee and how these processes affect beverage safety.

The following article discusses these processes and shares the case studies of two organic coffee roasters, specifically, how they maintain strict standards for supplying safe, quality organically certified coffee to consumers.

Organic Standards
Organic coffee production has a strict set of government standards unlike any other certification standard. In the U.S., 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 they can trust.

Organic Growing and Production Principles
Soil Management: Before any planting can occur, the land may not have had any prohibited substances applied for at least 3 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 3-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 any aspect of production or 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.

Subpart C of the NOP rule includes the production and handling requirements for all operations. Here are standards related to soil fertility and nutrient management. Additionally, standards are in place for seeds and planting stock, crop rotation and cover crops and pest, weed and disease management. Growers must implement tillage and cultivation practices that will maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation. As crop rotation is not a feasible option in coffee production, growers will plant permanent sod cover between rows to promote biological habitat, improve soil organic matter and, most importantly, help prevent erosion.

When cultivation practices are not sufficient for the nutrient needs of the plantation, growers have several options. While composted plant and animal materials are allowed, NOP has also set forth specific standards on synthetic and non-synthetic fertility inputs for general crop production. Sections 205.600-205.606 of NOP is the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, which is broken down into allowed and prohibited substances for crop production, livestock production and processing.

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.    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.

Bagging: 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. Sanitizers allowed without a rinse are listed on the National List, section 205.605. All bags must also be clearly identified as organic.

Export: 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., <$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.

Read Sidebars: Chiapas Farms—Food Safety from Crop to Cup and  Golden Valley Farms Coffee Roasters: Benefits of Certified Organic Coffee

Mike Dill is an Oregon Tilth Certified Organic inspector.

Sandra Marquardt is president of On the Mark Public Relations and is the coordinator of the Organic Coffee Collaboration, a project of the Organic Trade Association. For more information, please visit


Chiapas Farms—Food Safety from Crop to Cup
Chiapas Farms coffee is packaged for retail and sold online and in grocery and gourmet food stores in Texas. Because the coffee is roasted in Austin, TX, the company has focused retail marketing efforts in Texas. The company focuses on four key elements that drive the company’s business philosophy and ultimately create value for the consumer:

Farmer-friendly – We work directly with the farmer or the farmer cooperative to acquire supply at a fair price with fair terms.

Quality – All of our coffee is certified organic and fair trade. Our coffee receives a premium quality grade, meeting or exceeding coffee quality standards.

Traceability – We provide 100% case level traceability on all products to ensure consumer safety. Each bag of coffee has a lot number and a “roasted on” date that makes it possible to trace the origins and production journey of each bag.

Sustainability – We are committed to organic farming, fair trade practices and best agricultural practices. Through commerce, consumers and businesses have the power to improve the standard of living for the farming communities by rewarding farmers financially for organic and sustainable production practices; we also help protect the environment in a compromised region of the world.

We source our coffee from a single farmer cooperative with approximately 2000 farmer members. Proudly, our coffee is both certified organic and fair trade. We are fair trade-certified by Trans Fair. To become Trans Fair approved, the coffee must be purchased directly from the farmer or a farmer’s cooperative for a premium. The premium for Fair Trade organic is $ 0.30 above the international commodity market price, thus ensuring that the farmer gets a fair price.

Our coffee is not blended with other coffee beans, but instead, the beans come from the eastern part of the state where farming communities keep a watchful eye on their coffee plants. Personal pride and financial incentives for quality motivate the farmers to continue to grow organically and improve soil and product quality. If you speak with one of the co-op farmers, they will tell you that they prefer organic production methods because it is safer for their family and the fragile ecosystem that surrounds them. Farm safety for these growers is more about protecting the local ecosystem that contributes to the unique flavor and quality of the coffee they produce. Their livelihoods depend on growing coffee in a way that is harmonious with the flora and fauna around them.

The coffee cherry is hand-picked, often at several harvests. If coffee cherries are harvested too early or too late, quality can be compromised. The husk of the cherry is removed and the green coffee beans are revealed. Green coffee is then dried, packed in jute (fiber-weaved) bags and sent to the nearest processing station where it is weighed, recorded and then classified for quality. The bag is marked and scheduled for transportation to the primary cleaning and processing facility.

After bagging, the coffee is verified by a representative of Chiapas Farms who checks the quality of the coffee at the warehouse in Mexico. Once verified, a container is sent to a temperature and humidity controlled warehouse in Austin, TX. That particular container is given a lot number that appears on every retail package of roasted coffee. In the event of a food safety issue, we can trace the coffee back to its origin. The container of coffee receives an armed escort to the U.S./Mexico border until it passes U.S. Customs.

The coffee is stored in a temperature/humidity controlled warehouse that is certified organic by the Texas Department of Agriculture. The Texas Department of State Health Services Food and Licensing Group requires the roasting facility to have one person on staff who has a Certified Food Management Certificate and all other employees to be Certified Food Handlers.

Before being roasted the roast master will comb through the coffee again to ensure cleanliness. The coffee is roasted at 400 °F or higher for 10 to 16 minutes, depending on the unique characteristics of the bean and the desired flavor. Any remaining contaminants are burned off during the roasting process leaving the coffee wholesome and safe for consumption.

The coffee cools on a wire screen before being stored in air-tight containers. These sanitized buckets are kept covered with sealed lids until packaging. For freshness, the coffee is packaged in a lined bag with a built-in degassing valve and then heat sealed to protect the product from oxygen and contaminants. The degassing valve allows the off-gasses that the coffee continues to emit to leave the bag without oxygen or other contaminants entering the bag until it is opened.

The roasting facility is kept clean using organic approved soaps and cleansers as well as organic pest control.

Buying direct from a certified Fair Trade farmer’s cooperative is a way to use commerce to improve the world. From crop to cup, Chiapas Farms coffee is a product to count on for its safety, quality and wholesomeness.

–Nishi Whiteley, Chiapas Farms

Golden Valley Farms Coffee Roasters: Benefits of Certified Organic Coffee
Golden Valley Farms Coffee Roasters sells to commercial businesses and residents through various distribution methods, offering only dual-certified organic and Bird-Friendly® specialty coffees.

We became a certified coffee roaster for the Smithsonian Institution Migratory Bird Center’s Bird-Friendly coffees because they have very stringent guidelines (like a minimum canopy height of 12 m and foliage cover of 40%, as well as a mix of shade trees >10 species) that strive for positive social, economic and environmental impacts around the world. One requirement is that the Bird-Friendly coffee farm must be certified organic.

We are also a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic-certified coffee roaster, which requires very stringent guidelines on harvesting, processing, and manufacturing products claiming to be organic. The USDA is the gatekeeper of all things organic, accrediting any organic certification agency whose certified products enter the U.S. marketplace. In terms of quality control and food safety, it is, essentially, the “certifier of the certifiers.” Moreover, all organic and Bird Friendly coffees must be tracked and kept separate from other non-certified coffees, thus assuring consumers that they truly receive what they are purchasing—no mix-ups with these rigorous guidelines.

Many years ago, when the coffee plant was first discovered, it was found growing in a natural forest habitat under other tree canopies and among many diverse plants, trees and bushes. This type of coffee farm was called a shade-farm but was transformed over time to sun-farms by clear-cutting all of the trees and bushes on the farms.

These farms require extensive pesticide and fertilizer input, an issue of great concern in terms of overall safety in production and consumption of coffee. Not only is the coffee produced on the organic farms supplying us with its bird-friendly coffee free of any prohibited agrochemicals, but the farmers also avoid being exposed to toxic substances. Chemically treated sun-farms cause a decrease in migratory and native birds, environmental pollution, deforestation, soil degradation and water degradation.

By producing organic coffee, we affect the overall safety of our product for consumers by the following:
Farming – Improving the quality of the soil is the basis for organic. The farm’s soil must be free of prohibited substances for a minimum of 3 years prior to harvesting crops that will be labeled organic. The National Organic Program (NOP) encourages farmers to improve soil fertility and rotate crops to naturally increase crop yields and disease resistance, as well as eliminate the use of synthetic, petroleum based agricultural inputs—many of which are toxic to a wide range of organisms.

Harvesting/processing – Organic crops are picked, cut, cleaned in the field and kept separate from any non-organic produce. To ensure organic integrity, certifying these operations through inspections and records keeping is mandatory. Equipment used for harvesting and processing must be cleaned and sanitized in accordance with NOP requirements. For example, a coffee processing plant must separate organic and non-organic coffee either by processing it at different times (with thoroughly cleaned equipment) or by using dedicated machinery used only for organic coffee.

Packaging – Packaging may occur in the field, at a facility or where a product is cleaned, canned or bagged and given a product label, name or an identification number such as a universal product code. Through inspection and records evaluation, organic products are verified to make sure organic integrity has been maintained through the packaging process.
Processing/roasting – Organic crops can be processed further with other organic crops or spices. To ensure the organic integrity of a product has been maintained, a USDA-accredited certifying agent, such as Quality Assurance International (QAI), must inspect these operations to ensure that they are operating according to the NOP and certify their compliance.

Labeling – Labeling is a very important part of the NOP, as labels help consumers understand what they’re buying. How agricultural products have been handled, processed and combined with other ingredients determines how they can be labeled organic.

Shipping/Transportation – Products are shipped to distributors or to retail stores. To ensure ongoing organic integrity, products must be protected from contamination by non-organic products. Prior to loading and unloading, trucks are verified for shipping practices that maintain this integrity, such as the prevention of commingling of organic and non-organic products and impermeable packaging.

Distribution – Products are compiled from farms, processors, or other distributors to one central location in order to distribute products.

Retail – By selecting products that carry the USDA’s organic seal or a certifier such as QAI, consumers can rest assured that each step in that product’s entire organic supply chain meets the NOP guidelines.

We take additional steps to ensure our company practices produce the highest quality coffee around. At random, coffee samples are pulled from production and tested to confirm quality. Our roasting and packaging facilities are reviewed on a weekly basis as part of our safety measures. Digital images are captured and reviewed during audits.

By offering only organic products to our consumers that come from Bird-Friendly farms, we are not only guaranteeing that they are getting a product that is safer and healthier for them, but we are passing the positive social, economic and environmental impact on to them. Every time customers purchase our Bird-Friendly organic coffee, they know they are making a positive impact on our world. What better way to contribute to our world in a positive manner?

–Erin Mariani
Golden Valley Farms Coffee Roasters