Under The Microscope

It’s been a year of scrutiny for the coffee business. Legislative and regulatory measures have put coffee under the microscope, both literally and figuratively. Coffee is much more than the sum of its parts, as we coffee lovers know better than most. But some of its constituent compounds are behind 2013’s toughest challenges.

Spurred by Congressional attention, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) launched a new examination of caffeine in the U.S. diet. Congress focused on ill effects of highly caffeinated products and the addition of caffeine to new foods, but the FDA said it would do a comprehensive review of caffeine consumption. The FDA’s focus raised immediate concerns that a new FDA guidance document could call for lowering its recommended daily caffeine intake or requiring content labeling in foods containing caffeine.

As part of its investigation, the FDA tasked the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine to hold a public forum on the subject. NCA attended the meeting and found the focus to be primarily on energy drinks rather than coffee. However, NCA remains cautious and will keep a watchful eye on developments. NCA also plans to meet with the agency and present a scientific paper, developed by NCA’s scientific committee, that distinguishes coffee from other caffeine sources and sets out scientific findings about coffee’s healthful properties. The goal is to confirm the safety of coffee consumption and avert regulatory recommendations that could unnecessarily impact the industry.

A more direct move toward caffeine labeling came in a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill calls for package labeling when a food contains ten milligrams or more of caffeine per serving. Other provisions call for changes to Nutrition Facts Panel information, a new definition of “natural” that prohibits artificial flavors, colors, and ingredients that have undergone chemical changes, such as corn syrup, maltodextrin, and alkali, and additional information on nutritional value. Like all proposed legislation, with potential impact on the coffee industry, NCA is continuing to monitor developments closely and will take all appropriate action going forward.

Another substance formed naturally in roasted coffee is keeping legal pressures on the industry in California. Acrylamide, formed naturally in the roasting of coffee, like it is in bread, potato chips, crackers, and other foods, is the basis of a major lawsuit under the state’s Proposition 65 law. That statute requires a consumer warning of the presence of any of 800+ listed chemicals, including acrylamide. With the overwhelming weight of science behind it, the industry maintains that there is neither statutory basis for a Proposition 65 warning in California nor reason for consumer concern, nor any reason for consumer caution as a matter of public policy to preserve and promote health. Coffee is a healthy beverage, confirmed by a growing body of literature associating coffee with measurable health benefits.

The long-term solution for preventing unwarranted legal action, like the California lawsuit, is amending Proposition 65. As a public referendum, it is very difficult to change, requiring two-thirds of both houses of the California legislature or another public referendum. But, NCA seized an opportunity when California Governor, Jerry Brown issued a call for amending the statute to tackle abusive lawsuits. Working with other affected stakeholders, NCA crafted legislative language to establish key statutory modifications and leverage the governor’s initiative into effective reform for the coffee industry. Among NCA’s recommendations were amending the law and regulations to establish an explicit exception when a Proposition 65-listed substance is created from naturally occurring components during cooking. NCA also spelled out its reform platform in a formal comment letter to the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA). The governor’s office ultimately tabled its legislative efforts, but NCA continues to pursue changes on the regulatory front.

Also impacting the coffee industry were more proposed rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). That law fundamentally changed the federal government’s process for protecting food safety, moving from remedying contamination to preventing it. This year, proposed regulations for one of the most far-reaching provisions of FSMA were released by the FDA. Spelling out the law’s approach to hazard assessment and preventive controls, the new regulations impact fundamental concepts that drive safety protocols in food production facilities.

NCA filed formal comments with the FDA, seeking to clarify certain provisions that could create unnecessary additional burdens on coffee roasters and retailers.  In the comments, NCA called for clearer alignment with current food safety procedures, both to make sure the new regulations would not disrupt effective systems already in place, as well as to preserve the flexibility companies need to continue to adapt plans to address real-time concerns. NCA also asked for a clearer, appropriately narrow definition of “produce,” that would exclude coffee from the law’s stricter standards for fruits and vegetables. Moving into 2014, NCA is studying the next set of proposed FSMA rules, which target safety measures to be deployed prior to importation.

Clearly, it’s been a challenging year for coffee in the public policy arena, and year-end won’t neatly wrap up these challenges. But, as always, NCA will continue to pursue every avenue to achieve outcomes that protect and propel the coffee business. In line with its mission, NCA will continue advocating aggressively for the well-being of the U.S. coffee industry.

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