New legal requirements for green coffee imports

The US FDA has been performing surprise audits on green coffee importers to ensure they are complying with new food safety standards. Is your company aware of all the new requirements? By Dr Mark Corey

Recently, some green coffee importers have undergone surprise audits by inspectors with the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), checking for compliance with relatively new food safety standards associated with the import of green coffee. The audits – which are being performed under the FDA’s Foreign Supplier Verification Program (FSVP) – can be a big wakeup call for some importers, with some being caught completely off-guard by the new requirements and others who thought they were in good standing, but learned too late they had gaps in their compliance. In some circumstances, importers who had all the proper systems and documentation in place found that the company representative charged with furnishing information to the inspector was unable to adequately communicate critical details supporting their compliance.

These and other lapses in compliance can cause major disruptions for a coffee importer: an inspector could issue Form 483 citations, product could be delayed or seized at the US port of entry, or worse — the importer could receive fines and jail time.

With these concerns in mind, it is important that all actors in the green coffee supply chain be fully knowledgeable of FDA’s new import requirements related to food safety; create the proper compliance tools, records, and operational systems; and be able to communicate the information clearly and effectively.

Before examining compliance requirements, it is important to understand the path green coffee follows from tree to import — and why the FDA created food safety rules for foreign suppliers to cover risks that may affect green coffee along that journey.

Why has FDA created food safety rules for foreign suppliers to begin with? To fully answer this question, we must start at the beginning of the supply chain: the coffee farm.

Coffee is commercially grown in over 70 producing countries globally. Once the coffee cherry is harvested from its tree, it will often get processed at a community co-op or mill, resulting in a cleaned and dried green coffee bean. The green coffee beans are often then bagged and shipped to a warehouse where it is prepared for export. At any point during this process, coffee beans may get blended with coffee from dozens or even hundreds of other farms — making coffee what is known as a co-mingled commodity.

At port, the coffee is then loaded into metal shipping containers, sometimes fumigated, and, if heading stateside, shipped to a US-based port. The coffee must pass through US Customs prior to being transported to warehouses, changing hands between brokers, importers, and eventually, roasters.

Green coffee changes hands multiple times with numerous parties between the time of its harvest at the coffee farm and the time it reaches a roaster. Every actor should be following Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), and Good Handling Practices (GHP). These can be summed up to be basic, commonsense hygienic and sanitation steps that a food processor must follow to guarantee the safety and wholesomeness of a food product. Failure to comply with these standards can put a business in trouble with the FDA.

Until recently, the FDA was very limited in what food safety standards it could apply to foreign suppliers of agricultural commodities and finished foods to the US market. With a co-mingled commodity like green coffee, the complexities and difficult traceability make enforcing some standards virtually impossible. For this and other reasons, the FDA issued the Foreign Supplier Verification Program (FSVP) as a component of the US Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

At a macro level, FSMA was signed into law in 2011 and with the aim of ensuring the safety of the US food supply by shifting from a reactive response model to one of proactive prevention of contamination. In turn, FSVP, a sub-section of FSMA, allows regulators the opportunity to establish similar, prevention-based food safety standards for both domestically produced and imported foods.

FSVP was also designed to allow for flexibility in its framework, allowing companies to more easily apply FDA’s rules to their own business operations. The green coffee industry is fortunate in that green coffee is roasted prior to consumption, which reduces food safety risks considerably compared to many other food products.

To help green coffee importers understand FSVP compliance, the National Coffee Association is producing an FSVP Toolkit. The Toolkit, which will be released this summer, will take importers step-by-step through the various FSVP rules and regulations as they apply to green coffee and will provide a sample FSVP-compliant plan with green coffee examples.

The NCA will also be revamping and relaunching its Model Food Safety Plan Template for Green Coffee. A complete food safety plan is an essential element of a compliant FSVP plan.

  • Mark Corey, PhD, joined the National Coffee Association (NCA) of the USA as director of scientific and government affairs in 2018. Previously, he worked in R&D roles in the coffee industry for ten years and was volunteer chairperson of the NCA’s Scientific Leadership Council for five years.

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