Is Kopi Luwak cruel coffee?

Depending on who you speak to, Kopi Luwak is either a delicacy, a novelty or the result of a cruel and exploitative industry. But, whether it be through fame or infamy, the global recognition of this unique method of coffee production has grown exponentially in recent years. Harvested from the faeces of the Asian palm civet, or the luwak as it is known in Indonesia, Kopi Luwak was discovered in the 18th Century by plantation workers who weren’t allowed to drink the coffee being sold by Dutch colonialists. They realised they could collect the beans from droppings instead. Today, this coffee is as well known for its price as its taste profile, with its famed beans attracting prices of more than US$500 per pound. Proponents of the coffee say the civet is a naturally gifted coffee harvester, selecting only the finest cherries to feed on. This talent is combined with the civet’s unique ability to supposedly improve the taste of the beans while passing them through its digestive tract. It is said that the civet’s stomach contains a particular enzyme that reduces the acidity of the bean, which combines well with a fermentation process that is perfected thanks to the civet’s body temperature. The result is a rich, smooth taste. These assertions are not accepted by all in the specialty coffee industry, however. United States-based coffee consultant, Jack Groot, is sceptical about whether the taste of Kopi Luwak actually warrants the high price tag. “I personally think Kopi Luwak is all marketing and no show,” he says. This type of coffee is produced in a number of South East Asian nations, such as Vietnam, the Philippines and even East Timor, but it is the Indonesian variety that has become the most recognisable on the international market. With this growth in popularity, however, has come a growth in shady practices around Kopi Luwak production, including the sale of regular coffee in place of, or blended in with, genuine Kopi Luwak, and the farming of the beans from caged civets. It is the latter that has attracted the attention of international animal welfare bodies such as the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The WSPA says farmed civets are often caught using snares and other inhumane methods, sustaining injuries that are frequently left untreated by their captors. The animals are then kept in small, bare cages where they are overfed with coffee cherries instead of their usual mixed diet. These practices, WSPA says, place massive stress on the civets and often lead to illness and early death. In response, the WSPA has launched a campaign to call upon civet coffee retailers around the world to pledge to only sell civet coffee from a guaranteed 100 per cent wild, cage-free source. Dr Neil D’Cruze, Head of Wildlife for WSPA, says that the only way for this to be effective is through certification. “WSPA urges retailers to lend their support by expressing their concerns about caged civet coffee and their desire for an accredited certification scheme to relevant  certification bodies,” D’Cruze says. “WSPA also encourages retailers to proactively work with suppliers, distributors and producers to develop and ensure the enforcement of such a scheme.” D’Cruze says the campaign has already had a number of successes, including the announcement from Harrods in the UK that it will no longer sell Kopi Luwak produced from caged methods. Numerous retailers in Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden have also removed all Kopi Luwak from their shelves specifically as a response to WSPA’s campaign, as there is currently no way to differentiate between the caged and non-caged product. This, however, could be solved by science before it is addressed by the certification bodies. Dr. Sastia Putri is a researcher at the Laboratory of Bioresource Engineering, Department of Advanced Science and Biotechnology, Graduate School of Engineering, Osaka University, Japan, working under Eiichiro Fukusaki. Fukusaki’s team has been working on behalf of the Indonesian Coffee and Cocoa Research Institute to use metabolic profiling as a tool for the authentication of Kopi Luwak. “We used metabolic profiling to compare the profile of authentic Kopi Luwak beans (digested by a civet), regular coffee beans (not digested by a civet), and a blend of regular coffee and Kopi Luwak,” Putri says. “As a result, we were able to identify several markers that can be used for Kopi Luwak discrimination. We are hoping that this will serve as a start for the development of a robust authentication procedure for Kopi Luwak.” This project was initially launched to combat the problem of diluted or fake Kopi Luwak, but Putri says the next phase is to address the problem of caged civet farming. “We are hoping to see some differences in the metabolic profiles of Kopi Luwak produced using different methods so we can then establish a method to discriminate wild and caged Kopi Luwak,” she says. Ade Makmursyah is one of the owners of Kopi Luwak Nusantara, an Indonesian brand that specialises in coffee from wild civets. Makmursyah says he is against the farming of civets for a number of reasons, not least that so long as the practice continues to attract negative attention, it is doing harm to the businesses of all Kopi Luwak producers, regardless of their methods. Makmursyah also says coffee from farmed civets is of an inferior standard, as the animals are not given the opportunity to pick the best coffee cherries themselves, which is one of the key points of difference for the product from wild civets. He says also that if civets are not fed a balanced diet, the quality of the coffee passing through their systems is adversely affected. On top of this, Makmursyah says the demand for Kopi Luwak is so small, that he is puzzled by the need to farm the creatures at all: “There are more wild civet beans droppings out there [than there is demand for the product] so why bother to put [civets] in cages?” Makmursyah also says that, with most of the demand for Kopi Luwak coming from within Asia, the often astronomical prices that are paid in the West are not as commonplace as many people think. “The average offered price for roasted beans is about US$250 per kilogram,” he says. Makmursyah says he is concerned that the campaigns to end civet farming will affect the industry as a whole. “However, as ethical Kopi Luwak producers, we are not giving up due to this controversy and we will continue to grow the market by keeping this unique Indonesian heritage running,” he says. The WSPA’s D’Cruze says that while the society is working with certification bodies to develop criteria for cage-free certification, the impetus for change will ultimately come from consumers demanding to know whether they are drinking coffee that has been harvested from genuine wild civets or their caged counterparts. “The real power to change this situation for the better lies with the public; consumers and retailers who the civet coffee industry rely upon to buy their products. Ultimately it is their  purchasing practices which can ensure that only wild sourced, ‘cage free’ civet coffee is produced and that independent assurance for cruelty free product status can be guaranteed,”  he says.

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