• OTA - background

    Mould is undesirable in any product, and coffee is no exception. In recent years mould in coffee has increasingly become associated with concerns over the presence in food and beverages of ochratoxin A (OTA). The toxicological status of OTA has not yet been settled but importing countries are nevertheless paying increasing attention to its occurrence in coffee and other agricultural products, and are requiring preventative measures. It may be safely assumed that in a few years most major coffee consuming countries will apply such measures.

    For this reason in December 2000 the ICO sponsored a US$ 5.5 million project, mainly funded by CFC, the Government of the Netherlands, ISIC, CIRAD and the participating countries, and managed by FAO, to determine the risk factors for mould formation and to establish best practices for mould prevention in the first stages of production. The project was completed in 2005 and extensive documentation, guidelines and teaching materials have been produced.

    Extensive sampling and testing is ongoing in a number of consuming countries. The Nestlé Research Center in Lausanne, Switzerland, has developed a rapid TLC (thin-layer chromatographic) screening method for detecting OTA in green coffee that is simple, robust and very cheap, which makes it particularly well adapted for implementation in producing countries. For more information on this see theJournal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, issue 50, pages 243-7 (2002). It is important to remember that the analysis of OTA in green coffee is very dependent on accurate sampling and proper preparation of the sample (grinding and homogenization): for more on this see QA 097 in the Q&A Archive.

    In the European Union the following maximum limits apply to finished coffee products, effective 1st March 2007: roasted coffee - 5 ppb (parts per billion); soluble coffee - 10 ppb. No limit has been set for green coffee but green coffee remains under review; and there is provision for annual reporting of the occurrence of OTA and prevention measures. In the meantime though, a number of individual European countries (Czech Republic, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland) have their own legislation or customs regulations in place that also set (varying) maximum limits on green coffee. Italy has limits on finished coffee products while in some countries (e.g. the Netherlands) internal instructions for food safety inspectors are in place. Germany, Europe's largest importer, applies the EU limits.

    The danger for producers is that once a producing country is identified publicly (for instance through the EU 'rapid alert' system used by customs authorities to distribute information on shipments with a food safety risk) as a potential source of OTA contamination, the reputation and marketability of its coffee are likely to suffer, with obvious consequences. Italy has already established a system to identify 'high risk' origins. Identification of a shipment with an excessive OTA level automatically results in the producing country being placed on a 'high risk' list, and it will be removed again only once a number of 'clean' shipments have been received.

    A further issue is how green coffee would be sampled for OTA. As yet there is no universally agreed OTA related sampling and testing method for green coffee and the danger is that individual countries will establish their own individual procedures. It is in everyone's interest that sampling and testing procedures are standardized worldwide, including producing countries, and that adequate preventative measures are taken in producing countries since it is there that the problem can be addressed at source.

    The importance of this cannot be stressed enough. From 1st January 2006 returning a shipment that is rejected at the external border of the EU is subject to Article 21 of Regulation 882/2004 of 29 April 2004 on official controls. The relevant part of this article, applicable to green coffee and imported finished coffee products, reads:

    The competent authority shall allow re-dispatch of consignments only if:

    (a) the destination has been agreed with the feed or food business operator responsible for the consignment; and
    (b) the feed or food business operator has first informed the competent authority of the third country of origin or third country of destination, if different, of the reasons and circumstances preventing the placing on the market of the feed or food concerned within the Community; and
    (c) when the third country of destination is not the country of origin, the competent authority of the third country of destination has notified the competent authority of its preparedness to accept the consignment.

    Logically then, failure or inability to re-export will result in destruction of a rejected consignment. Hence it is entirely possible that in time the well-known United States contract condition 'no pass no sale' could also be introduced for coffees shipped to Europe and elsewhere…

    To note also that it is prohibited to mix foodstuffs complying with the maximum levels with foodstuffs exceeding these maximum limits. This does not affect green coffee for which there are no maximum limits but would mean that it would not be permissible to mix equal volumes of, for example, roasted coffee containing levels 0 7ppb of OTA with roasted coffee containing 2 ppb to achieve a 4.5% average.

    Visit www.ecf-coffee.org and look under Publications for extensive, practical information on OTA as an issue in the production and trading of green coffee. Visit www.coffee-ota.org for more extensive coverage and look under Resources for presentations on HACCP and the prevention of OTA along the coffee chain, including a CD-ROM version.

    (For the full EU Regulation on OTA go to www.europa.eu.int/eur-lex/en/index.html, look in the Official Journal of the European Communities for Commission Regulation No 472/2002 of 12 March 2002, Commission Regulation No 123/2005 dated 26 January 2005, and Commission Regulation (EC) No. 1881/2006 of 19 December 2006.)

    For an overview of European Food Law generally go to http://europa.eu.int/comm/food/food/foodlaw/index_en.htm. Click on Procedures, Rapid Alert and see examples of inspections/results/rejections of food imports in the listing of reporting weeks.

    In the United States the presence of OTA in agricultural products is one of a number of food safety aspects that receive routine attention at the FDA. Although the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration) monitors for contaminants, including mould, based on a risk assessment analysis no specific guidelines exist concerning OTA levels in coffee products.
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