Civet coffee, or kopi luwak, was described as the “rarest beverage in the world” in the 2007 film The Bucket List, and it retails for £70 ($105) a cup in London, but a less-than-glamorous scandal may be brewing for the drink. The globe’s most expensive java, which is made from the feces of catlike mammals called Asian palm civets, is raising concern among animal-welfare organizations, the Guardian reports.
Producers of kopi luwak, based primarily in Indonesia, are facing accusations of “horrific” abuse against the civets, who are kept in cages and fed a diet comprising almost exclusively coffee berries in order to produce a usable excrement. The creation of the predigested coffee has transformed a small rural trade into an intensive farming industry, the Guardian notes.
The reporter from the British paper visited a café on the Indonesian island of Sumatra and discovered a female civet confined to a tiny cage in the back of the shop. The Guardian also found the creature’s two young offspring in a separate cramped enclosure, as well as 20 other civets in concealed cages on the roof of the building.
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According to the paper, animal-welfare groups believe comparable civet “farms” are cropping up across Southeast Asia and creating a serious ethical problem. As of now, tens of thousands of the animals are likely cooped up in cages and forced to live on the unwholesome berry diet. Although Asian palm civets, called luwak in Indonesian, are not endangered, a similar species called the binturong is also used for kopi luwak and has been classified as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
“The conditions are awful, much like battery chickens,” Chris Shepherd, deputy regional director of the conservation group Traffic in Southeast Asia, told the Guardian. “The civets are taken from the wild and have to endure horrific conditions. They fight to stay together, but they are separated and have to bear a very poor diet in very small cages.”
Shepherd said the conservation risk comes from the high mortality rate of some civet species, as those figures are “spiraling out of control.” He noted that there is little public awareness about how kopi luwak is made.
“It would put people off their coffee if they knew,” Shepherd said.
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As of now, civet coffee — which has been praised for its smooth, sweet taste — boasts an export price as high as $230 per lb., the Guardian points out.
Some of the drink’s producers have tried to distance themselves from the abuse allegations. Animalcoffee, which describes itself as a “small boutique roastery” in Indonesia, says its kopi luwak comes from wild civets and it does “not farm or cultivate civets under any circumstances.”
According to the New York Times, there are no available statistics regarding civet coffee’s share of Southeast Asia’s broader coffee industry, but locals have expressed concerns that fake and low-quality versions of kopi luwak have entered the market in a big way.
In the U.S., coffee shops like New York City’s Porto Rico Importing Co. sell the foreign brew, and but it remains to be seen whether there will be any fallout on American shores from the animal-abuse complaints.