THE BLOG
19/11/2013 09:29 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Killed by Caffeine

Imagine that you're in jail for some reason - solitary confinement, small cell, just an iron bedstead to lie on, no mattress. The main item in your daily diet is espresso coffee. Not just some, but lots. And lots. 125 shots a day, in fact. And you're forced to drink it.

How do you think you'd feel? You'd be bouncing the walls, no doubt. You might even be tempted to gnaw your own leg off. Sleep? You must be joking. You've just ingested 10 grams of caffeine, the amount that is considered to be the fatal dose, if taken all at once, for an adult human male.

Only you're not an adult human male. You're the common palm civet, better known as the luwak, an animal like a cross between a cat and a mongoose. And the reason you're being fed all this caffeine day in day out is so that you can produce kopi luwak, the 'luxury' coffee bean that comes out from your rear end. Which means it has to be fed into your front end in the form of coffee cherries.

Producers of kopi luwak recommend that each of their caged luwaks should be fed about a kilo and half every day of coffee cherry, which would yield about 300 grams of the precious beans (worth about $8 to the farmer). The pulp of the coffee cherry contains 0.6% caffeine, so that 1.5 kg contain nearly 10 grams of caffeine, the equivalent of 125 espressos. And some farmers recommend up to 3 kg of cherry a day 'to increase the yield.'

Caffeine is a natural insecticide, and its effect on humans has been exhaustively researched. The widely accepted daily recommended levels are 400 mg for an adult male (5 espressos) and half that for pregnant women. No such research has yet been done on the effects of caffeine on luwaks.

But you may have seen the footage of caged luwaks included in the campaigns against kopi luwak launched recently by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and my own Facebook campaign "Kopi Luwak: Cut the Crap." Painful footage of highly stressed luwaks pacing remorselessly, repetitively in their cages, lying down as if to sleep but with their eyes wide open, and yes, luwaks have been known to gnaw their own paws off - I've seen that for myself in Sumatra. But it didn't occur to me until recently (and nor it seems to animal welfare experts) that part of the stress may be that the animals are being slowly poisoned, and eventually killed by caffeine.

The calculations above are the first time to my knowledge that anyone has worked the wretched animal's caffeine consumption. The lifespan of a luwak in captivity is a little over a year, and the first sign of ill health is usually blood in their scats (crap). We all know how too many espressos can upset our digestive system. Imagine the effects of 125 espressos a day.

Wild luwaks do eat coffee cherries as a small part of their natural diet - a habit that spawned an entire industry. But they eat them in small quantities, and mainly when it's cold and wet, probably as an energy boost. This is why genuine wild kopi luwak is very rare and also why, in order to mass produce it effectively, the animals had to be caged or enclosed, and force fed coffee cherries. The confinement of these highly solitary wild animals (in the wild their individual range is about 17 square kilometers) in cages or enclosures is already cruel enough. Add forced hypercaffeination on top of that, and it's basically torture.

(Tony Wild is the former coffee trader who first introduced kopi luwak to the West. He is the founder of the Kopi Luwak: Cut the Crap Facebook campaign, and has just launched a petition, https://www.change.org/UTZcoffee )