Among the most heinous seed-to-cup narratives ever perpetuated by the coffee industry is the story of kopi luwak.
It was one that was famously repeated in the 2007 old man buddy comedy The Bucket List, in which Jack Nicholson’s character is reading a coffee product description to a character played by Morgan Freeman, who is near death but could use a good laugh. Nicholson recites:
Kopi Luwak is the world’s most expensive coffee, though for some it falls under the category of too good to be true. In the Sumatran village where the beans are grown lives a breed of wild tree cat…
Yadda, yadda, yadda…
Since that moment, the business of kopi luwak — coffee that is purported to pass through the digestive tract of Indonesian palm civets — has ballooned. There are now hundreds of sellers of kopi luwak through various legitimate and nefarious channels alike online, and there’s an entire cottage industry in parts of Indonesia primarily catering to tourists seeking the luxurious thrill of crapped coffee.
This all comes despite the fact that there’s been well-documented evidence of animal cruelty involving caged civets that are force-fed coffee cherries and left in squalor amidst disease and other nearby animals — all to sell more of the world’s “most expensive coffee” to the unimaginative wealthy.
There’s also been little oversight of the kopi luwak segment of the coffee industry, as the segment has been shut out of certification schemes, and the verification of cage-free or legitimate kopi luwak claims is a near-impossible proposition.
Despite these realities, kopi luwak production has managed to carry on for the better part of a decade.
In these days of the novel coronavirus, there may be an even more important reason for the coffee industry to reconsider its stance on kopi luwak: zoonotic transfer, i.e. the transmission of a disease from a non-human animal host to a human.
The nonprofit animal rights group PETA this week released an undercover video report that showed alleged conditions of caged civets on the island of Bali, Indonesia, in which PETA operatives pretended to be tourists. It resembled similar reports throughout the 2010s on unethical kopi luwak production, though PETA this time offered a different pitch: the next pandemic could come from the coffee industry.
Their argument is that as civets are caged, traded and shipped through underground markets alongside humans and all kinds of other animals, kopi luwak production can result in a kind of breeding ground for new animal-borne diseases.
Though PETA provides no hard evidence to support this theory, it is widely understood in the scientific community that the SARS virus — the 2004 predecessor to COVID-19 — was transmitted from a population of bats to civets before being transmitted to humans. Though the evidence is not yet conclusive, it is the scaly, docile mammal pangolin that is currently leading the candidate list of non-human animal hosts believed to have transmitted the novel coronavirus to humans.
In some places, pangolin meat has been considered a delicacy — something to be savored only by those with the finest tastes and deepest pockets — rather than a vehicle for zoonotic transfer. Sound familiar?
In the coffee industry, it would be unfair to single out kopi luwak as the sole potential means towards the world’s next great virus. The industry has played its part in widespread deforestation and land use activities that have destroyed ecosystems and put humans in close contact with untold numbers of new non-human animal diseases.
But perhaps it’s time for thrill-seeking coffee drinkers to preemptively nix some items from their bucket lists.