Misleading Menus

Last week, news surfaced that a Toronto Restaurant was misleading its customers by claiming that dishes and certain ingredients were special in terms of being premium, organic or local when they weren’t.

Factory farmed eggs were sold as “Free Range Eggs”, Farmed Atlantic Salmon was claimed to be “BC Organic Salmon” and Quaker Harvest Crunch was sold as “organic granola”. For more details, see the article from the Toronto Star

Many people are willing to pay a premium for special products such as these and so for the unscrupulous vendor, there’s an opportunity to increase price without increasing their costs by engaging in a little creative menu writing. We find this to be very disappointing and it raises the question of how can you be sure that the claims on a menu or a package are true?

There are two major ways to protect yourself from being a victim of false labels:

1) Look and ask for Certifications

While it is possible to claim that a product is certified when it is not, there are checks and balances in legitimate certification systems that help you determine that product claims have been verified.

Our coffees are Certified Organic by EcoCert.

In our case, we are a certified Organic Coffee Roaster and we publish our Organic certificate annually.  Our certifier, Ecocert Canada, verifies each organic claim we make. We are required to maintain meticulous records.  We are inspected and our records are checked every year to ensure we are compliant with Canadian Organic regulations. In the case of many certifications such Fair Trade and Bird Friendly, you can look up if the supplier is registered with the Certifier.

2) Ask about the Origins of the items

If a restaurant claims a product to be Organic or local or heirloom or special in any way, they should be prepared to explain the basis of the claim. So ask your server, if it is local, what farm did it come from? When? if it is organic, is it certified or how do they know it is really organic? The more people ask for details, the more difficult it will be for restaurants to mislead their customers.

Choosing sustainable, local, or artisanal foods can be rewarding in terms of tastes and the food experience and are often well worth the premium price, as long as we are getting the products that are being advertised.

What is up with the Fair Trade logo?

You will notice a new fair trade logo on our website and packaging this month.  There have been some changes in the fair trade system this year, and, we are now licensed with a different certifier: Fair Trade USA.  Their fair trade logo looks like this.

Fair Trade Logo

So what is going on?  And what does it mean?

Well in short, the fair trade system now has multiple third party certifiers, each with slightly different criteria.  This is similar to the organic system in which there are well defined criteria on what is required for a product to be organic and there are several certifiers (Ecocert, Procert, and many more) who audit processes and records to ensure compliance with that standard.

It differs from the organic system in that the criteria for fair trade used by Fair Trade USA are now slightly different than those used by Fair Trade Canada.  The differences between them are subtle and are motivated by a differing views on how best to meet the goals of Fair Trade.  The goals remain common.

As licensees, we are disappointed by the confusion this disruption that has been caused by this shift.  While there seems to be rather vicious debate between advocates of these 2 systems (and the Rainforest Alliance actually), we remain focused on uncertified product as the problem:  where workers have no rights, poor pay and no security and where small producers have poor access to credit and to markets.  We believe effort should be spent on increasing the market for socially certified coffee rather than debating the merits of the various social responsibility certifications all of which have made significant improvements in the lives of real people.

From our perspective, the most important aspect of any certification including one for social responsibility, is that

  • it has published criteria that are developed openly and can be seen to be achieving their stated goals
  • the criteria are verified at every step by an independent third party
  • that chain of custody is unbroken so every party from producer to consumer willingly commits to third party verification

This brings us to why Birds and Beans, a Canadian family owned company, has landed with Fair Trade USA.  As the Canadian leader in certified Bird Friendly® coffee we are not able to purchase our raw coffee from the list of FTO coffees offered by local importers (as almost all other Canadian roasters do).  We have had to build our own global supply chain.

Our supply chain is complex and specialized and we have partnered with several like minded buyers in the USA to meet our goals.  Our buying partners have always been licensees of Fair Trade USA.  In order for us to preserve the new chain of custody requirements, we have joined them and now report through Fair Trade USA.

Chico Depulping
Chico depulping the coffee cherries on Gaia Estate

We are offering the same coffees grown, purchased and certified under the same conditions as we always have.  The only thing that has changed is the logo.  In the future, we hope to be able to add coffees sourced from our estate farmers (who were who had been ineligible for fair trade certification as independent family farms) as Fair Trade Certified.

Birds and Coffee

A richer earth.

We chose our name to highlight the link between the cultivation of coffee and its impact on ecosystems around the world. The songbird migration that we North Americans witness twice each year is a natural wonder of the world.


It is endangered.  We are doing what we can to help.

Songbird populations are dropping due to many factors, but  most significantly because of their shrinking wintering grounds in South and Central America. Tropical rainforests are being clear-cut and replaced by industrial farming enterprises with no regard for the impact on the environment. In most regions the last refuge for our migratory birds and other wildlife are shade coffee farms.

Bird Friendly habitat
Our Nicaraguan coffee source.  Quality forest for as far as the eye can see.

Sadly, even these remaining almost wild places are being degraded and destroyed.

Coffee is naturally a small shade loving tree. It was traditionally grown under the canopy of the rainforest with other shade loving agricultural crops. Grown in this way coffee is does not require agrochemical inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides)…  Grown in natural shade, coffee is well suited to be grown organically and in harmony with the natural environment.

Isun-coffeen the last couple of decades the coffee industry developed coffee trees that can tolerate the sun and produce higher yields. Without regard to the consequences, the clear-cutting began.  And so did the shift from one of the lowest impact crops on the environment to one of the highest. Lured by the promise of higher yeilds, growers shifted from shade covered polyculture using little or no agrochemicals to coffee monoculture requiring huge quantities of fertilizer, insecticide and herbicide.

This industrial style cultivation eradicates the winter homes of our migratory birds by destroying the forest like habitat and through chemical poisoning. Their alarming decline is the wake up call of a collapsing eco-system.

Picking at Gaia Estate
A pickers using traditional methods

Fortunately many small growers continue to grow coffee in the traditional way on farms with shade canopies. Others, seeing the destruction of their land are returning to the practices of their youth. We have much to learn from these people who preserve habitat and farm within a more natural environment rather than the destructive “technified” monoculture of North America.

We can help stop the madness by purchasing certified Bird Friendly® coffee. Scientists have shown that the ecosystem on these farms functions similarly to virgin rainforest supporting nearly as many bird species as does virgin rainforest. By contrast the ecosystem on sun coffee and partial shade farms has collapsed. These farms have been shown to support very few bird species, and not the same ones as the ecosystems on certified Bird Friendly® farms.

Transparent, third party certification is crucial to ensure the quality of the shade is actually providing habitat for birds, butterflies and other wildlife. Birds and Beans committed to purchasing exclusively certified Bird Friendly coffee in 2013. After more than 10 years of working hard to source rustic shade coffee we saw shade label claims on coffee with poor quality shade and even sun coffee. It became clear that to preserve biodiversity in coffee growing regions, we cannot accept unverified shade claims.

We challenge all other roasters and coffee marketers to refrain from unscientific and unverified shade label claims and instead offer certified Bird Friendly® coffee.

Cup of Coffee
Cup of Certified Bird Friendly Peru Norte

By seeking out coffee that is certified to preserve habitat, and compensating farmers fairly  for their global contribution to biodiversity, we can save these lush agro-forest ecosystems. It is the easiest and most impactful act we can collectively make to ensure that the songbird migration continues for future generations.

Oh… and did we mention that it tastes better?

Further Reading:

Bird Friendly® Coffee

Kenn Kaufman goes birding on a Bird Friendly® coffee farm 

Kenn Kaufman’s Blog

Silence of the Songbirds

Bird Friendly® Criteria

Shade Coffee Species List

Birds and Beans Certifications

At Birds and Beans we strongly believe in third party certification.  Certifications are a way for us to participate in a voluntary chain of trust while harnessing third party verification.

We trust our growers and our importers based on our shared values and our joint support of certification programs. We earn your trust through our certification and our willingness to be verified. It is the chain of verified trust that ensures that people and the environment are protected.

Be part of the chain: Look for the certification seals.

All of our coffees are Certified Bird Friendly® with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center to offer our coffees. See our up to date listing on the SMBC website here.

org_logo_smAll of our coffees are certified organic by Ecocert Canada, an accredited certification bodyin Ontario. See our current organic certificate.

In addition to being certified Organic and Bird Friendly, all our coffees are purchased under fair and respectful social conditions and are certified by either Fair Trade USA or the Rainforest Alliance.

Most of our coffees certified Fair Trade. See our up to date listing on the Fair Trade website here.
The rest are Rainforest Alliance certified.


On certifications, Birds and Beans is Soaring about the Crowd™.