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What is the true cost of the world's most expensive coffee?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 March 2014

Neil D'Cruze*
The World Society for the Protection of Animals, 5th Floor 222 Grays Inn Road, London, WC1X 8HB, UK.
Joanna Toole
The World Society for the Protection of Animals, 5th Floor 222 Grays Inn Road, London, WC1X 8HB, UK.
Katharine Mansell
The World Society for the Protection of Animals, 5th Floor 222 Grays Inn Road, London, WC1X 8HB, UK.
Jan Schmidt-Burbach
The World Society for the Protection of Animals, 5th Floor 222 Grays Inn Road, London, WC1X 8HB, UK.
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Copyright © Fauna & Flora International 2014 

Civet coffee (also known as Kopi Luwak in Indonesia) is produced using coffee berries that have been eaten and then partially digested by civets. It is claimed that the digestive system of civets ferments and alters the chemical structure of the beans, resulting in a smoother, less bitter flavour that is highly prized in certain circles.

With an estimated annual production of < 127 kg (although this is widely considered to be a gross underestimate) and a price tag of up to USD 200–400 per kg, it is known as the rarest, most expensive coffee. It is widely available in international markets (including Europe, USA and Asian countries such as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea).

Indonesia is the main producer of this luxury product but other countries, such as East Timor, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Ethiopia, also produce it. With an apparent growth in international consumer demand some producers have turned to caged production methods to increase yields. These include both casual cottage industry initiatives operated by rural communities and large-scale coffee estate initiatives.

The potential threat posed by civet farming to both the welfare and conservation of wild populations received media attention in September 2013 following an undercover investigation conducted by the BBC in Indonesia. The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) verified the footage, revealing that at least two species (the palm civet Paradoxurus hermaphroditus and the binturong Arctictis binturong) are currently utilized and are typically kept in inadequate conditions that result in high levels of morbidity and mortality. It is estimated that thousands of wild civets are being poached from the wild every year to maintain these farms. The binturong is of particular concern as it is categorized as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and is already fully protected by Indonesian law. Although the palm civet is a more widespread species, the local impact of the unregulated removal on populations is unknown.

In contrast, traditional production methods for civet coffee do not pose a threat to the welfare and conservation of civets as these methods do not involve the removal of civets from their natural habitats. Rather, workers are employed to collect excreted coffee beans directly from plantations and forests. This process could result in a mutually beneficial co-existence, allowing people to profit from an animal whose presence might otherwise be considered a nuisance because of its consumption of coffee berries on plantations. From a consumer perspective, civet coffee collected by this traditional method is considered to produce a higher quality product.

Evidence has confirmed that supply chains for civet coffee are not transparent and products are not adequately labelled for retailers or consumers to establish whether they are traditionally sourced. Furthermore, it appears commonplace for producers to mix farmed and traditional beans before selling the product to middlemen. Even if they are aware of the concerns associated with farmed production methods, there is a significant risk that consumers are unknowingly purchasing coffee from this source.

For some time NGOs have been working with industry representatives to help develop retail guidelines that address mutually agreed principles for ethical coffee sourcing. This has led to the implementation of certification schemes evaluated by third-party verifiers. Consequently, there has been progress towards empowering small-scale farmers organized in cooperatives to invest in their farms and communities, protect the environment, and develop the business skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace.

As civet farming has only recently been uncovered it is unsurprising that guidelines for the retail of coffee do not adequately incorporate principles related to animal welfare and conservation in relation to this issue. In recognition of this, WSPA has approached prominent retailers across Europe and North America. It is hoped that with their support it will be possible to facilitate the development of an international independent certification scheme that sets a transparent standard for traditionally sourced civet coffee.