The Fair Trade Bean
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Fair-trade-certified coffee beans follow a route from producing countries to the United States that is different from the route traveled by other coffee beans. Fair trade coffee passes through fewer hands, eliminating coyotes and other intermediaries from the supply chain, and brings growers in direct contact with importers and roasters. Growers of fair trade coffee beans work in a cooperative. If they meet certain standards set by fair trade organizations, growers are guaranteed a floor price of at least $1.26 per pound for raw beans -- compared with the 50 cents or less that most other growers get per pound.

While fair trade may tip the balance of profits for some coffee growers, most experts agree that it's not the panacea for the global coffee glut. Oxfam, an international relief organization, has argued for more comprehensive approaches, including international market management, to correct the structural imbalances in the industry. The group also has called upon major coffee roasting companies to finance a program to destroy millions of bags of the world's lowest-quality coffee beans and address the massive oversupply of coffee. The roasters, in turn, advocate increased coffee consumption, especially in the Third World.

Meanwhile, the fair trade coffee market is growing. In 2001, U.S. sales rose 36 percent, and now more than 7,000 retail outlets across the country sell fair trade coffee, including Safeway and retailers such as Peet's and Starbucks. Even megaroaster Sara Lee now offers fair trade coffee to some of its institutional customers. But fair trade coffee still only makes up a tiny fraction of these companies' sales and just 2 percent of the U.S. specialty market.

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