Regulations established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) established a maximum level of "natural or unavoidable defects that present no health hazards for humans." Among other things, these defects can include insect byproduct.
It is not known whether finding cockroach traces in ground coffee has been documented apart from anecdotal evidence.
Some people take cream with their coffee, others sugar. But others, according to a widely circulated internet rumor, also slurp up their daily cup of joe with a decent serving of cockroaches.
In late February 2021, Snopes readers asked our team to look into the claim that ground coffee contained traces of insects — cockroaches in particular. Disturbing as it might be to some, we found this claim to be based in truth.
The claim first went viral when Douglas Emlen, a biologist and professor now at the University of Montana, was interviewed by NPR in 2009 about his research on dung beetles. Though coffee and cockroaches were not specific to his work, an anecdote about why Emlen's undergraduate advisor would regularly travel 45 minutes out of the way to buy freshly ground coffee quickly swept the internet.
"I remember giving him a really hard time because we were wasting a lot of travel time trying to feed his addiction because he needed a coffee every couple of hours," said Emlen in the interview.
"He finally explained to me he had to drink only sort of whole bean fresh ground coffee. And it was because of cockroaches."
Traces of cockroaches, the biologist went on to describe, were found in pre-ground coffee — an insect that Emlen's advisor, entomologist George Ichorph, had developed a severe allergy to after handling them in the lab "year after year." In an email to Snopes, Emlen said that his research was not specific to insect-related contaminants found in coffee and though the claim is true to the best of his knowledge, he could not comment on it specifically.
Various renditions of the claim that ground coffee beans can contain cockroaches have circulated across the internet in the years since Emlen’s original interview. A look through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Microanalytical Procedures Manual (MPM), which contains an analysis of trace elements in food, found this claim to be based in fact. The MPM regularly analyzes different processed foods to determine levels of natural or unavoidable additives that are not deemed a health hazard to humans. And yes, insects have been shown to be a common trace element in both ground and whole-bean coffee but our search did not reveal reports that specifically stated cockroaches were found in coffee.
Under federal law, the FDA is given the power to establish maximum levels of natural substances that unintentionally contaminate food for human consumption because the agency concluded that it is impractical to “grow, harvest, or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects.” This does not mean that the FDA approves of such additions or that it even finds levels acceptable as long the food manufacturer stays just below the level.
Snopes contacted the FDA to determine whether cockroach traces have been observed in ground or whole bean coffee and were referred passages from the Food Defect Levels Handbook, which showed us that at some level, insects or pieces of insects getting into mass-produced food are unavoidable.
“Manufacturers are responsible for ensuring food products for the U.S. market, including coffee, are safe and comply with applicable federal laws and regulations including preventing pests like cockroaches from contaminating food. To be clear, cockroaches are not allowed in coffee,” said an agency spokesperson in an email to Snopes.
The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act requires that manufacturers may not prepare, pack or hold food under insanitary conditions during any stage of production or distribution. Food producers are also subject to regulations that require effective pest control measures in manufacturing facilities to exclude pests like cockroaches.
Under the MPM section describing coffee beans, the FDA determined that coffee can be contaminated by insects, as well as also molds, fungi, rodents, and other “foreign matter” including cigarette butts, chewing gum, and broom straw. However, cockroaches are not considered incidental pests under an agency compliance guide published in 2002, so they are not included within the insect defect action level for green coffee beans.
At the time of his 2009 interview, Emlen also said that U.S. standards allowed for coffee beans to contain up to 10% “insect filth and insects” — a fact that has been somewhat misrepresented. According to guidance issued by the FDA, an average of 10% or more of green coffee beans were found to be insect-infested, which included beans damaged by insects or mold.
Though it is entirely possible that cockroaches are among the insects that infiltrate coffee supplies, the FDA noted the aptly named coffee berry borer beetle and the coffee bean weevil are two of the most intrusive pests. Coffee berry borer beetles will infest the coffee blossom on a tree and burrow into its bean, leaving behind their excreta and cast skins in the process. And in warm, damp climates, the coffee bean weevil will often infest a variety of seeds while they await processing or shipping in storage — coffee included.