I'm seriously annoyed with those guys at Harrods, to tell the truth. After everything I've thrown at them recently that casts serious doubt on their supply chain's integrity, I can still stroll up to their coffee counter and quiz their shop assistants without raising so much at an eyebrow. What's the point in those burly security guards at the doors if they don't flex their muscles when their declared adversary hoves into view? Has everything I've done had no impact on Harrods?
OK, I've probably lost you. So here's the story so far. In 1991, I inadvertently invented an industry based on a charming, albeit faintly disgusting, story of a wild jungle animal, the palm civet or luwak, who had in full coffee season of creeping onto Sumatran plantations and eating the ripest cherries, crapping out the indigestible beans inside. I was Director of Coffee at Taylors of Harrogate at the time that I bought a kilo of kopi luwak as a curiosity, not to sell. In fact, the media's curiosity was much more than I anticipated, leading to feature articles in national papers, TV appearances and radio interviews.
Other coffee companies in other countries quickly latched on to kopi luwak's PR potential and, fifteen years after my original discovery, I looked on with a certain paternal pride as my little protegé appeared on Oprah, then in the 2007 film The Bucket List, with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, no less. Kopi luwak was a global superstar, the must-have bling accessory for those who absolutely must have such things. And all at suitably bling prices - up to £60 a cup at a leading London nightclub, or £60 per 100 grammes at Harrods.
Then a Guardian article late last year ruined the party. Wild luwaks were being illegally poached, it revealed, caged in revolting conditions and press-ganged into the kopi luwak trade, now grown to a large international industry. I was mortifed that my little discovery has led to such large-scale suffering. But the article didn't really follow the trade from producer to consumer, from cage to cup. So when the BBC contacted me in January to see if I were interested in helping them to investigate and expose exactly that aspect of the trade, telling me that they thought they could prove that Harrods' 'wild' kopi luwak came from captive luwaks, I jumped at the chance to get involved.
Harrods. That name again. Honestly, the lengths to which we've had to go in our attempt to disprove their claim that their coffee is 'wild'. We (the BBC team and I) entered Sumatra illegally, going undercover to interview dodgy businessmen with hidden cameras and microphones; our driver was run out of Takengon - capital of the kopi luwak mafia - at gun-point and the BBC producer and I were held virtual hostage. Then I've had to interview secretive coffee traders under a number of pretexts as I tried to winkle out the truth. When I appeared in the final BBC programme, Coffee's Cruel Secret, it finally exposed the fact that owners of the Wahana estate, Harrods' source of 'wild' kopi luwak, had misled buyers, including Harrods' own supplier, and had eventually admitted to having captive luwaks on their Wahana farm. Only they now say that they keep them for scientific study, not coffee production.
Lesser companies might buckle under the pressure and withdraw the coffee from sale until matters were cleared up. But not Harrods. They defended their position to the BBC, stating that they 'will investigate the evidence from this programme' with their exclusive supplier first.
In the aftermath of the programme's airing worldwide, the London importer who sells Wahana kopi luwak to that same Harrods supplier decided to withdraw the coffee from sale 'pending investigations.' Nonetheless, Harrods have continued selling it. "Caged or wild?" I asked a sales assistant there only last Wednesday, "Wild," she assured me. Serious doubts down the supply chain, but no doubts at all at Harrods, it seems. I can't say with absolute certainty that their coffee comes from caged animals. The issue is, as they charge their £60 for 100 grammes of the stuff, how can they still say with absolute certainty that it's wild?
Meanwhile, my online petition, www.change.org/CivetCoffee, has been signed by 45,000 people in the six days since it launched. It's aim: to persuade Harrods to discontinue their involvement in this cruel and corrupt trade. Will they listen? Judging by their current reaction, no. At least, not yet. Maybe we'll have to shout louder...