#32: Re:co Podcast – Ed Price and Panel on Harnessing the Power of Science (S4 E3)

Today, we’re very happy to present the third and final episode of “Harnessing the Power of Science,” a session recorded at Re:co Symposium this past April. The main focus of this session was to learn about new developments in coffee science and explore how Specialty Coffee can engage with the scientific enterprise for the benefit of all of us. If you haven’t listened to episodes #30 and #31, we strongly recommend going back to listen to them before you continue with this episode.

On this episode of the Re:co Podcast, we are pleased to welcome the panel of Dr. Maya Zuniga, Supply Chain Optimization and Food Science Expert at S&D Coffee and Tea; Ed Price, Professor of Agricultural Economics and Howard G. Buffett Foundation Endowed Chair on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University; Bill Murray, President and CEO of the National Coffee Association; William Ristenpart, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Director of UC Davis Coffee Center; and Chahan Yeretzian, Professor of Analytical Chemistry, Bioanalytical Chemistry, and Diagnostics and Head of the Coffee Excellence Center at ZHAW. The panel discusses the return to research in agriculture with a particular focus on the amazing period of discovery and development in coffee science that took place in the last decade.

Special Thanks to Toddy

This talk from Re:co Seattle is supported by Toddy. For over 50 years, Toddy brand cold brew systems have delighted baristas, food critics, and regular folks alike. By extracting all the natural and delicious flavors of coffee and tea, Toddy Cold Brew Systems turn your favorite coffee beans and tea leaves into fresh cold brew concentrates, that are ready to serve and enjoy. Learn more about Toddy at http://www.toddycafe.com.

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Table of Contents:

0:00 Introduction
2:30 Talk by Ed Price on the role of agricultural research and science in coffee
13:15 Maya Zuniga on how S&D Coffee And Tea approached scientific research
18:15 Chahan Yetetzian on how his university works practically with companies interested in learning from coffee science
22:00 Will Ristenpart on how industry partners with academia to fund research centers in the oil and beer industries
25:00 Discussion on The importance of scientific gathering spaces in coffee
31:15 Ideas on how to drive more interaction between coffee companies and coffee science centers
37:45 Discussion on the importance of better communication between the scientific community, coffee companies and the media, especially in light of unfounded public health scares
44:00 Outro

Episode Transcript

0:00 Peter Giuliano: Hello everybody, I’m Peter Giuliano, SCA’s Chief Research Officer. You’re listening to the Re:co podcast, a special episode of the SCA podcast. The Re:co podcast is dedicated to new thinking, discussion, and leadership in Specialty Coffee, featuring talks, discussions, and interviews from Re:co Symposium, SCA’s premier event dedicated to amplifying the voices of those who are driving specialty coffee forward. Check out the show notes for links to our YouTube channel where you can find videos of these talks.

This episode of the Re:co Podcast is supported by Toddy. For over 50 years, Toddy brand cold brew systems have delighted baristas, food critics, and regular folks alike. By extracting all the natural and delicious flavors of coffee and tea, Toddy Cold Brew Systems turn your favorite coffee beans and tea leaves into fresh cold brew concentrates, that are ready to serve and enjoy. Learn more about Toddy at toddycafe.com. Toddy: Cold brewed, simply better.

Today, we’re very happy to present the third and final episode of “Harnessing the Power of Science,” a session recorded at Re:co Symposium this past April. The main focus of this session was to learn about new developments in coffee science and explore how Specialty Coffee can engage with the scientific enterprise for the benefit of all of us. If you haven’t listened to episodes #30 and #31, we strongly recommend going back to listen to them before you continue with this episode.

On this episode of the Re:co Podcast, we are pleased to welcome the panel of Dr. Maya Zuniga, Supply Chain Optimization and Food Science Expert at S&D Coffee and Tea; Ed Price, Professor of Agricultural Economics and Howard G. Buffett Foundation Endowed Chair on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University; Bill Murray, President and CEO of the National Coffee Association; William Ristenpart, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Director of UC Davis Coffee Center; and Chahan Yeretzian, Professor of Analytical Chemistry, Bioanalytical Chemistry, and Diagnostics and Head of the Coffee Excellence Center at ZHAW.

Together on stage at Re:co Symposium this past April, the panel discusses the return to research in agriculture with a particular focus on the amazing period of discovery and development in coffee science that took place in the last decade.

2:30 Peter Giuliano: So now we’re going to have a little bit of a panel discussion as we’ve had a number of times. And a few of my colleagues will join me. I’ll introduce you as as as we go along. The first is Ed Price, he’s a professor at Texas A&M University. And also on the Board of World Coffee Research. There’s Bill Murray. He’s the CEO of the National Coffee Association. Maya Zuniga, she is a food scientist at S&D coffee. And then finally Bill Ristenpart, he’s the professor at UC Davis and also the Director of the UC Davis Coffee Center. And finally, Chahan Yeretzian, who’s a professor at Zurich University for Applied Sciences and Director of its Coffee Excellence program.

To begin with Ed’s going to give us a little bit of a talk on the role of agricultural research and agricultural science.

Ed Price: Thanks Peter. I also want to thank Hannah Nushwanda who helped prepare the visuals for today. My colleague Joey King who helped with the analysis.

I’m going to talk about returns to research in agriculture and especially to coffee and we’ll see what we can find out. What are the indicators of investments in research on any crop or the number of varieties that are available from that crop? This has been discussed earlier here. I think a couple of years ago, we talked about watermelons and how many hundreds, thousands of varieties that were of watermelons.

But let’s look at tree crops and maise. Zea maize has six species and in Ames, Iowa there are 20,000 varieties of maize that are in the working bank to support scientists work on maize.

For apples, there are 62 species of apples and worldwide there are 7,500 varieties of apples being grown today. Oranges – there are 33 species of oranges, the gene bank at Riverside, California, uses 1200 varieties of oranges to support research on improving orange varieties.

And we’ve lamented before that in the case of coffee, we have a 125 species, from which we derive 50 varieties. These varieties are like a bank account. That’s what we go to, to provide resilience to disease, to drought, to high temperatures, low temperatures and so on. It’s also what we use to meet consumer preferences. So the coffee bank account is pretty low compared to other crops.

Another tidbit, just interesting. The C.S. Clonal Repository, comprises 30,000 varieties of tree crops, of nuts and fruits. Among those are 200 varieties of bananas and 200 varieties of cacao. It has one coffee plant in the gene bank in Mayagüez, Puerto Rica.

Another measure of how we exploit this gene bank are the rates of yield that have been continuous from these genetics. You can see that maize far outstrips the other tree crops, it’s tripled its yield in the last 55 years. Coffee has increased about 70%, apples about 70% and oranges about 40%.

Interestingly oranges were innovated first 500 years BC. It was a cross between mandarin orange and pomelo, and that’s our sweet orange today. So the innovation in oranges has been going on about 3,000 years.

Interestingly, now we should look at what has been the returns to research or innovation. We’re turning to a meta-study. That’s a study of studies that was conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute. They reviewed 292 articles that reported about 1800 estimations of returns to research on agricultural enterprises – livestock and crops and so on.

You can see that the studies showed returns from a negative 10% to over 1,500%. And because of the skewness – and that was one of the attributes of these data sets – they discovered that there is a systematic skewness in the high on the high end of rates of return. So they dropped a few of those at the end. And even though the average is about 81% rate of return on research, IPRI has concluded that we should look at the median or around 44% rate of return, should be the conservative estimate of what we can always expect from investment in research on coffee.

But looking then among the different commodities that were examined, we see that they used about 1700 studies, they have a 108 observations/ estimations of rates of return on tree crops. The mean was 88% rate of return. And the median was 33% rate of return.

Incidentally, it’s been referred to previously, but the rate of return is estimated as the net present value of future returns from an innovation.

Moving on, coffee production and yield, we want to look at what’s happening in coffee. You can see the global area has varied quite a lot but it’s relatively constant. Global area of coffees has not increased a lot. Production’s increased quite a lot. So global yield is increased.

So we can say that coffee yields are increasing but that’s driven by two countries – and we’ll see that momentarily. We estimated those same curves of yield for 42 countries that grow coffee and you can see that they vary from negative rates of increased yield in Kenya, El Salvador and Zimbabwe.

But the countries that are having the most rapid increase in yield are Brazil, Malawi, China, Vietnam and Malaysia. Most of those are small producers except for Vietnam and Brazil. And we’ll see how what impact that that has on our estimates of increased production.

Here we separate out Vietnam and Brazil and we can see that once you take out Vietnam and Brazil, rates of yield in the rest of the world have been pretty much stagnant for the last 50 years. And that what we’ve seen as a global increase in yield is pretty much due to two countries: Vietnam and Brazil.

We wanted to see if we could relate rates of return or increases in yield to the number to the amount of research. We don’t have good data on Research. We have some numbers for numbers of PhDs conducting research on coffee. And here we plot that. It’s not telling an awful lot except that we can see that many countries are grouped around one or two researchers total. Probably those researchers are much involved in yield maintenance. Meaning they’re probably not being able to increase yield but they’re at least taking care of the problems. And so that’s one reason why we don’t get a very strong relation here.

But due to Brazil, at least we get a small indication of an increasing rate of return to research but this is not a strongly significant relationship.

It also gives us a chance to talk about what are some of the problems with estimating returns to research in coffee. One of the things is that we’re very early in trying to track this or data are very weak. Also, there’s a lot of spillover from one country to another. For example, Vietnam has the highest rate of yield among all the coffee growing countries. It’s a relatively recent entrant into coffee production. And likely Vietnam did not develop the varieties that it’s using. Its been able to use a spillover effect of varieties from other locations.

Another issue is this concern about maintenance. If your effort is going into maintaining yield then you don’t see a strong positive relationship and yield growth in production.

Finally, I just wanted for a conceptual model, it’s useful to regard our opportunities for increasing productivity, our yield. Basically what we’re saying here is that diseases, weeds and pests reduce yield. At that point, once you solve those problems, you’re limited by water and nutrients, that limits yield. But once you’ve got all of that solved, then you get to your theoretical maximum yield where solar radiation, CO2, temperature and so on determine your theoretical yield.

It’s really lamentable that today, our actual yield, we saw world average it slightly less than one metric ton per hectare. Once you take out Brazil and Vietnam, it’s less than half a ton per hectare. That’s really subsistence agriculture. It’s really very, very low. The nutrient water limited yield at this point is probably around four tons per hectare. I’m asking our breeders what do they regard as the theoretical maximum, the potential yield, and they’re telling me that somewhere around six tons. I’m thinking around eight times that we have a theoretical possible yield of around eight metric tons per hectare. But that is a long, long way from the one ton per hectare we’re getting now so we’ve got a long way to go.

13:15 Peter Giuliano: Thanks Ed. There’s a lot of relevance there to some of the challenges that we were talking about earlier and how science might be deployed in the agricultural sector to solve some of these problems that we’ve been thinking about all day. And we’ll get back to that in a minute.

But really what we want to talk about in this panel is, in general, including agriculture and all the other places that coffee works, is how coffee can become a more science friendly industry.

As I mentioned earlier, we’ve got a new relationship with coffee science. It’s only a decade since we were saying that we really didn’t feel like we were relating with science at all. And we’ve got these new institutions, these coffee centers at universities and World Coffee Research etc.

But the place that I wanted to begin is in businesses. Many of us come from businesses ourselves. And so I wanted to start with Maya.

Maya you were, I think, the first scientist brought into the organization that you work for. And wasn’t it a part of an effort to be more scientifically oriented at S&D Coffee?

Maya Zuniga: Short answer: yes. But just to clarify I was actually not the first. I was the first PhD. But I think that was a build on a very savvy organization recognizing that in order to be a leader in the 21st century, we really need to take that relationship with coffee to the next level.

And that level was a deeper understanding, making a more direct connection between, not just procuring great tasting coffee, but understanding why it was great tasting and getting down to the sensory level, the molecular level, to really understand and then educate our customers who could then target their consumers and help them understand why they might like a dark roast versus a light roast versus a particular region. What were the chemical drivers that really impacted their liking?

Peter Giuliano: So you’re a food scientist. And so what you’re saying is that you brought a scientific expertise, a scientific perspective to things like understanding consumers, product development, that thing.

What’s that meant for S&D coffee to integrate the process of integrating science into the way that the business is done. Have there been challenges or has it been has it been smooth?

Maya Zuniga: Like with anything new nothing smooth, but it’s a learning curve. And so, again recognizing that as a coffee industry, we’ve got great deep knowledge. But it’s highly subjective knowledge.

And so we know we have this wonderful magical bean that just has a tremendous plethora of flavor nuances. And how do we get people to better appreciate it? One person enjoys the perfect cup. It’s perfect to us. But what might be driving our liking of it is very different because it’s so subjective.

So, I mean, I like fruity dark, chocolaty notes. Bill might like more bright, roasty, ashy notes. Both love those particular profiles, but they appeal to us. And so, from helping, both participants as well as leaders of organizations or customers, understand that it’s okay for them to have their personal preferences, but how that isn’t necessarily the same profile that’s enjoyed by their target consumers.

They want to sell blends that appeal to the people that they’re…they want them to come back to buy more. So us helping them understand “well, who are your target consumers?”

It was a shift in thinking because a lot of times we were so driven because we enjoyed it as an owner of a business, you might enjoy a particular profile so much, you’re going “well, why doesn’t everybody else enjoy the same thing?” It’s a great cup, but it might have notes that just aren’t as appealing to someone else.

So for us to represent a shift in that thinking to say “have you thought about who your target consumers are? What is it that might appeal to them? Here’s a different way to look at it.” And we’ve got a more objective approach by drilling it down to “is it fruity? Is a dark? Is it roasty? Is it ashy?” And then being able to translate that into consumer speak.

18:15 Peter Giuliano: Yeah, that’s really great. Talking to Maya about integrating a PhD scientist into a coffee business made me think Chahan about your coffee center. And you have had some people from coffee companies join your coffee research group at Zurich University of Applied Sciences. Tell me how that is, how that relationship works.

Chahan Yeretzian: Yeah. At the base science is just a technique. It’s a technique to give answers to questions that are objective. Or we call it inter-subjective.

So if I’d come to conclusion, another person would do the same experiment with the same conclusion. And the main difference is that these are no longer opinions.

So with science we want to provide information that is reproducible by everybody. But at the beginning, we have to have relevant question on which we give the answer. And that’s the most difficult thing.

As a scientist, you can ask any question and at the end, after two years of research you come and talk about it, and then everybody says “so what? What’s that for?”

So the problem really is, before you do any research, you have to know what question you are looking to answer. And in order to define the question, before you invest a lot of work, you have to somehow merge the scientific technique with insight in the industry or the specialty coffee, in order to find the right questions. And then you can let the scientist go and they are very powerful to give an answer. As long as the question is well posed.

And the major problem is to ask the right questions. In order to have these, you need really a close collaboration. And that’s where actually in our center we try to combine both. And it’s always a very difficult thing. Sometimes this question drift away. So you realize, you ask a question and after a month you come back and the question has changed.

So, asking the right questions is the starting point. And asking the right questions means often for us also, when you work with a company, to have people in the companies who knows how to talk to us and us how to understand what they say.

So it’s actually, the beginning is at the beginning. It’s a question of communication between two different worlds, defining the right question and then re-meeting after a while and then bringing the answers we give to application. To bring it to the real world.

And that’s something that requires also within the company’s people understanding how to implement results. Because as a scientist we’re not creating a product, we’re giving results, we’re giving knowledge, we’re giving information that can be implemented.

So it’s this interplay that has to work, has to be created. And I think that in several situations with companies and with universities, this interplay is starting to get settled and other places it’s not there.

And ten years ago very few places were actually able to ask the right question and to implement results into products and profitable outcome. So that’s what’s changing right now.

22:00 Peter Giuliano: It’s really interesting to me as I’ve observed all of this and watched as relationships, like you were talking about, this communication is really important and having people that have the skills. The scientists that can talk to the industry and people in the industry that can talk to the scientists is so critical and building those relationships is so critical.

One of the things that caused me to reflect upon Bill Ristenpart was that, as you built the UC Davis Coffee Center, there’s been a lot of coffee engagement. Peet’s Coffee to start with, and then Probat and La Marzocco and others who have come on board to commit to the development of that Coffee Centre.

But in the undergraduate coffee lab, where you teach a lot, I noticed that Chevron actually contributed to the development of that. So that’s a that’s a corporate relationship that I didn’t expect. Tell me a little bit where that came from.

William Ristenpart: Yes. Absolutely. To give a little context, UC Davis has an undergraduate coffee lab. I think it’s the first academic lab in the nation dedicated to teaching undergraduates about coffee science and everybody in the room is invited to come visit and see it. And if you do you will indeed see in the corner of the logo of Chevron Corporation because they played a key role in helping fund the renovation of the space into a beautiful facility.

And so a lot of people come from the coffee industry and like, “why Chevron? What does that have to do anything?” And so my background is in chemical engineering. Chevron hires a lot of chemical engineers. They hire a lot of engineers in general. And more generally, the petroleum industry has a very long history of funding academic research and funding student initiatives to create an academic pipeline. Not for altruistic reasons, but so that they can hire really good talent for their companies.

Something a bit closer to Coffee than petroleum would, for example, be beer. So another lab on campus at UC Davis is the Anheuser-Busch pilot Brewery. And for those who don’t know Anheuser-Busch, they make Budweiser. They very generously donated funding to create what is one of the world’s best teaching labs for brewing of beer. And when people ask what know, why would why would Anheuser-Busch fund a lab that’s actually training brewers, some of whom end up working for their competitors, their answer is very simple. “So yeah, it helps the Brewing industry as a whole to have a good talent pool for everybody and also it helps Anheuser-Busch because they get to pick the cream of the crop. Every year they hire some of the best.”

And so that’s something that we’re building up here in UC Davis, we want to expand from the undergraduate coffee lab. But also the coffee center has this vision of creating scientists at the PhD level, so that in the future when Ed Price or somebody else shows coffee productivity as a function of number of PhDs, that will definitely be a linear positive correlation.

25:00 Peter Giuliano: That’s something that you were talking about, right? Which is trying to understand this correlation between trained people in science, working in fields. And you’ve got you’ve got some ideas about how trained PhDs and trained academics can really powerfully charge a field like agricultural research.

I was curious you gave some examples from other crops, oranges and corn and things. And I’m wondering how it looks… I mean, we in coffee, we don’t we don’t have anything to compare ourselves to, but you showed us the power of their increases in yields and stuff.

But I’m wondering how that looks more generally. Like are there universities starting orange Development Centers and developing PhDs? And and what can we learn from that from those other agricultural crops?

Ed Price: Yeah, well, in the case of oranges, even though it’s a subtropical crop, it does have a strong production base in the US. That’s why Riverside California has the 1,200 varieties that are used for improving the yield variety.

That’s really the reason we come back and we often talk about coffee is an orphan crop. It’s those commodities that are grown in the US, are grown in a country, they’re able to generate this base of support for the scholarship, the research and so on.

So it’s still a little bit of a dilemma for coffee. Now, I will say that universities are quite excited, UC Davis is excited, we’re excited about now this new field of working in coffee. The key will be how can we link it into the sources of support?

Another thing that you mentioned earlier, is the need for collaboration. Everybody’s talking about that and I think that that’s one of the big lacks in coffee science. Those PhDs that you saw scattered all over the world, ones and twos here and there, really probably don’t have a great a strong Community for collaborating. They’re probably serving their local industry and they just don’t have that opportunity to collaborate.

I wish that there were a gathering like this that was a coffee scientist gathering where they can begin to collaborate and I think we’re getting toward that stage where, when I heard the young fellows giving their talks, they’re talking to each other, they’re comparing research. So I think that’s really what we need in the science side of things that includes the academics and Industry research collaborating one with another and that will create a lot of momentum.

Peter Giuliano: Yeah that reminds me to speak about ASIC. Chahan, you’re the secretary for for ASIC, which is an association of coffee scientists. And aren’t you planning an event? Well, we’re planning together an event very much like this exactly as Ed described for the coffee science community, right? Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Chahan Yeretzian: Yeah, ASIC is essentially an organization organized every second year, a major coffee conference with 500 participants and the next one will be in Portland in September. And really it has been very much based on science. So scientists meet and talk about it and this year we’re organizing together with the SCA and we like to bring a little bit more reality to the science.

And it’s actually very important to create this meeting point. It has always been traditionally scientists talking to scientists and scientists have to talk also to people who implement because every science at some point to be implemented. That’s what I call applied science.

And applied science is actually the beginning. It’s a field that has still to be developed, understood and implemented. A lot of people do science and the difference between applied science and fundamental science is still blurred.

And I think that in an organization like ASIC, or other organizations, is really to redefine the meaning of applied science and make something that is useful.

And let me give you one example: grinding. Grinding is an area we always talk we need more understanding. When I started a few years ago, when you are asked somebody how we grind it, I put position five on that grinder and that’s it. And then everybody was happy, you could even publish it in scientific papers.

Now today, we’re a little bit more refined. We have this particle size distribution, and so everybody’s happy to see that. But still these are numbers. And then, what do you do with that? What is the meaning of that? What type of numbers are related to sensory properties, to extraction properties.

There’s still a huge lack of knowledge because you have to make now the last step from data to information, meaning. And that’s where we have to understand what information do we have to extract from this particle size distribution.

So grinding is a very interesting area where everybody says it’s so important and we know so little. We have a lot of numbers but we have very little information. And so there is really the need for the science that can do a lot. S science can do a lot. But often it doesn’t know the real questions to ask and that’s where the specialty coffee Community has a big responsibility.

The fundamental question for me is” does quality matter? For example, you make really bad coffee. Everybody drinks it. So why to do research? If quality doesn’t matter, you can still grind whatever you want, take whatever coffee, people still drink it. So actually, in the beginning, quality should matter. And so you have to have some really good questions to ask, that science can make an impact.

If there’s nothing to make an impact, science will not make an impact. All right.

Peter Giuliano: So we’ve talked about the importance of these gathering places. And one thing I’d like to mention is that part of the ASIC program for the first time this year will be a day that’s expressly focused on people from the industry, like us, to come and engage with scientists. And we’re calling it the industry day. So it’s a special one-day pass to the scientific conference where we’re designing special scientific presentations made for people in the industry and so we can build some of these bridges, so we can develop some of these relationships like we’re talking about.

31:15 Peter Giuliano: So we’re talking about hypothesis generation, which you’re mentioning, and the importance of interaction. But Ed mentioned something about resources, generating resources. And I want to talk about that a little bit. That’s a really important thing to be able to drive resources. And that happens in other Industries.

So I’d love to get some ideas and some thoughts about how we might drive more resources or how other industries drive resources towards these kinds of activities.

William Ristenpart: I’ll mention the petroleum industry again. So there’s something called the American Chemistry Society Petroleum Research Fund and they fund a tremendous amount of research every year. They have panels that accept proposals from faculty all over the nation doing research specifically for the overall benefit of the petroleum industry.

And so, I think if there was something like that for coffee, it would not only be good for the people up here on the stage, but there would be tremendous excitement and more enthusiasm amongst all the different academic departments across different universities. I mean, as soon as there’s funding available, you attract talent to tackle good questions and good hypothesis.

Peter Giuliano: Yeah. We were in a meeting some months ago. And one of the people in the meeting asked me what percentage of the revenues is the specialty coffee industry willing to commit to scientific research? And and I didn’t know the answer to that. I didn’t have an answer to that because our community hasn’t decided what the answer to that is going to be.

And that was an interesting question to meditate on.

So, Bill Murray, one of the things that interesting things that came out of our conversation in preparation with this is “okay, so we have the scientific stuff happening” and you asked what I thought was a really interesting question: what do we do with it once it starts coming out? And you had some interesting thoughts about that once there’s a flow of science. How do we interpret it and position it for people?

Bill Murray: Well first of all Peter, I appreciate the opportunity to be up here. You can go down the line and it’s “Professor, doctor, doctor,” then there’s me. So my earpiece is actually connected to a real scientist behind there who’s telling me to say things like “multivariate regression analysis.” So otherwise I wouldn’t be able to be here with you.

But my job as a liberal arts graduate at the National Coffee Association, it’s almost a way to act as an interface between the industry, B2B interface, or B2C interface.

And I think this really leads to the question about all of us here in the room as coffee professionals. What is our role and responsibility as a professional with respect to coffee science and the industry?

You can take for example the Prop 65 decision about two weeks ago. There were newspapers, media social outlets all across the country and they really have one objective. It’s to sell clicks. It’s to get people to click on their stories to sell advertising. And what better way to do that than to put up a headline that says “coffee and cancer.” There’s probably no more terrifying word in the English language. And there’s something that close to 80% of the population touches every single day.

So the folks that are out there, who are running the media, are running from issue to issue to issue. The day of the decision. I got a phone call from one of the major TV networks at 4:30 in the morning and they said “we’re running the story in about 90 minutes, what can you tell us?”

Now I think it’s back to this question of role and responsibility and resources. We’re not just talking to passive environments. We’re talking to media companies that are out there trying to make money and if they scare people, if they sensationalize things, that’s just part of what they do.

So the question for all of us is, when the customers come into our coffee shop, when our customers what our wholesale customers give us a ring, what are we going to say to them? Now at one level is society is increasingly all about feelings. Well, I think that’s a lot of nonsense.

But the real way in this discussion is to make reference to the science, to talk to the third parties who are out there, and to speak to people in a very professional, very well-grounded, very well research way.

And it’s not really that hard. You need to identify those sources that are helping you with this. Like the SCA, like the NCA, like UC Davis. And to look at the messages that they’re putting together. “Coffee and cancer, what does that mean?”

Well, actually as Britta told us a few minutes ago, it really doesn’t mean anything. Because in the first case, the United Nations said you shouldn’t worry about it. Second, the US government has said coffee can be part of your healthy diet. And third Harvard has studied this and they say you can live longer if you’re going to drink coffee. So I wouldn’t worry about that. There’s your message box. It’s simple, it’s to the point and it’s not about feelings. It’s about what the research says. It’s about the science says. So people can go and move on to something else.

So I think one of the key issues for us as professionals is how do we look at the science? How do we see its relevance? How do we discriminate between the good science and the junk science? And the answer is look to third parties, like the SCA, and then how can we keep our organization focused and articulate, so we can help get that message out.

37:45 Peter Giuliano: Yeah, that’s great. And it seems to me that that that really points to the need for science literacy, the ability for organizations like ours but also in companies like those that represent everybody here, because like you said we need to have a conversation with our customers, with the public about these things.

I was reflecting on when the news came out the other week about Proposition 65. I was drawn back to my time as a barista. And remembering those moments when people would come up to the counter and ask questions and stuff. I remember the day that there was some news about green tea and its connection to anti-cancer and then the next day there was a line of customers chain-smoking cigarettes and waiting to buy a green tea. So it can have a powerful impact on our customers.

And in a lot of our conversations came back around on the importance of a pipeline of scientists and scientifically trained people, even who aren’t science literate people, into our industries. And it seems to me that that really is a function of universities and applied sciences to teach people into these industries as a pipeline.

Chahan Yeretzian: I like to say something about this new issue – or perhaps in some communities – of “process contaminants” as we call them as a scientist.

In the process, you can generate some compounds that are critical to the health possibly. And acrylamide is one of these. And really to address this issue, it reminds me discussion we had before about diversity and communication.

It has a lot to do with understanding, for example, agencies who rule things. T they come up with legislation, policies. And really the wrong way is to say they are wrong. It’s more to really try to understand: what is the logic of these people? Because as the coffee person we know coffee is actually healthy as a full product. But of course as individual compounds in coffee that if you drink them individually in high doses and you give them to rats, they create cancer.

But as a coffee product, it’s actually healthy. So there’s a contradiction for me as a scientist. But still, the people in the legislation live with that, they accept that. So we can say they are just dumb or they don’t understand us. Or we try to understand this. So at the end, as a scientist, we can deliver data, exposure data. How much is a customer exposed to which count of compound. And that’s that base. We have to deliver clear data of exposure data, exposure amounts on acrylamide, on furan, furfural alcohol, all the composite are there. But then, that’s in the air. It’s going to be interpreted. It’s going to put into legislation.

So we have as a scientist we have to understand these people and influence these people. And that’s a challenge, because we’re solving business science. We don’t waste time. But we have to waste time to understand the other people and create these communities.

And the SCA’s perhaps a very good place to create these communities for the dialogue and for common resolution of these. Because right now, the dialogue isn’t that strong. Not here.

Bill Murray: I think your point about communication is an excellent one. And it needs to be a two-way communication. We need as a scientific community – to put myself on this side of the table – to hear from the industry, to hear from the practitioners, what they need and what they need to do.

We have a group within the NCA called the Scientific Advisory Group. Maya is on the group. We look at these issues and we dig into them. And a good example, Britta mentioned, is cold brew.

Last autumn there was a recall issued by Death Wish coffee for their Nitro cold brew, potential contaminants.

There were a couple of lessons here. One lesson was you probably should name your company after you’ve been joking around in your boardroom, drinking a couple of beers because – especially if it’s food-related safety issues… Probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

But the second question really was, once you got to ask the recall issue, were there bigger questions that science could help us answer? And in this case, the answer was “absolutely.” Why?

One of the reasons we like cold brew is because of that mouth feel. That mouthfeel is a result of lower acidity. That lower acidity means that there’s less acid to kill all the bad things, the pathogens that could be in the coffee.

We traditionally, because of the nature of coffee, we’ve not spent a lot of time focusing on food safety questions. Simply because, for all the reasons we know.

But when it comes to cold brew, it’s actually a very different situation. And so if you’ve got coffee shops, and people all across the country making cold brew to ride the business way, making it in their backyard, their home buckets and refrigerators, and they’re thinking “well, we’re not safety professionals. We’ve never had to worry about that.” Well, it’s actually different now. You need to worry about it.

So we look at this and we say “okay, if we’re having that two-way conversation. What can we do with our scientists to help make sure that the community can act responsibly?”

So we started doing work on creating a safety kit, a tool kit. We’re going to release a draft of that tool kit. So again, it’s going to address shelf life, and storage and transportation. We’re going to release a draft on Monday. We’re going to see industry and community input and commentary on the toolkit.

And when we’re done, we’re hoping it’s going to be a reference. So everybody can look at it as “our scientists really wouldn’t have known to look at that if we all hadn’t been talking about this thing.” Yeah, we want to get past this recall issue and the Integrity of the category.

But what are the bigger issues that science can help us with? Are there going to be other issues down the road? Well, maybe but hopefully not because if the toolkit’s out there, if people are paying attention and they’re acting responsibly, they’ve now got resources based on the science to help them do what they need to do.

Peter Giuliano: As we bring this to a close, I think that’s a great place to invite everyone in the room, we’ve just talked about a number of places: that advisory group, ASIC, our various institutions, this conference, World Coffee Research as places for those connections to be made and those discussions can be had.

44:00 That was Dr. Maya Zuniga, Ed Price, Bill Murray, William Ristenpart, and Chahan Yeretzian at Re:co Symposium this past April.

Remember to check our show notes to find a link to the YouTube video of this talk and a link to the speaker bios on the Re:co website.

This has been the Re:co Podcast, brought to you by the members of the Specialty Coffee Association, and supported by Toddy.