The move will help ensure the standard - which the trade association has been working on for a couple of years - is “developed with adequate technical information needed to withstand the scrutiny of the FDA and other international regulatory bodies,” said KBI president Hannah Crum.
Prior to submitting the standard to any government agencies, KBI plans to publish a code of practice to establish an initial set of guidelines that may be updated based on member feedback before taking any further steps, Crum told FoodNavigator-USA.
“This process has already yielded a lot of information about how we can get more technically specific,” said Crum, who had originally planned to published a proposed standard in May.
“So we’re going to reach back out to the membership and say: 'Here are some proposed technical specs, what do you think?' We’re really thinking through what are the defining attributes of kombucha.”
The standard - developed as a wave of lawsuits has brought the debate over what kombucha is and how it is made into sharper focus – will attempt to define what an ‘authentic’ kombucha is and how it is made, and encourage the use of certain on-pack qualifiers that provide additional clarity about source materials or manufacturing processes.
The move reflects growing unease among purists over the use of ingredients and processes that they believe compromise the integrity of the category. Some of the concern is around kombucha made with concentrates rather than tea fermented with a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), or not made with tea at all.
However, most of the bones of contention are around the use of techniques deployed to ensure alcohol levels remain below the 0.5% abv threshold throughout the shelf-life, from diluting the product post fermentation, to using heat pasteurization to kill off residual yeast, or micro-filtration to remove yeast [which some consider to be equivalent of sterilization] and prevent secondary fermentation in the bottle.
Some brands argue that kombucha is a living, ‘raw’ or ‘live’ product, and that heat pasteurization kills off the beneficial bacteria that consumers expect from kombucha, while others say that the pasteurization simply ensures a consistent, compliant, product, while adding in well-documented and clinically studied probiotics after pasteurization also ensures that the bottle contains exactly what is stated on the label.
If we don't define it, someone else will
Crum explained in an interview with FoodNavigator-USA in April: “It’s important to define what kombucha is because if we don’t define it as the industry association, other people will define it for us, and that may not be authentic as to what kombucha truly is. We understand that technology to make kombucha is evolving, but we also recognize that why haikus are so fun is because they have a rule structure.
“If consumers know what it is they are buying, they are more willing to pay a certain price,” she added. “It’s like fruit juice. People are willing to pay more for fresh squeezed than a heat pasteurized product.”
Could this lead to a stamp or seal?
So could this lead to a voluntary seal or industry stamp for products meeting the new definition? Or even pave the way for discussions with regulators to develop a legal standard of identity?
Both are possible, said Crum. “But the first step for us is to put it out there to communicate it to consumers so they ask questions of the brands that they love.”
But why would brands making products that do not comply pay any attention to the KBI's voluntary standards, given that it is not creating a legal definition?
“They will start paying attention if consumers ask hey, is your product pasteurized or made from concentrate?” claimed Crum.
“We live in an age where consumers want transparency, so we’re just saying here are the questions you need to be asking to make sure that you’re getting the product that you think you are.”
Is this a blueprint for plaintiff's attorneys?
Asked whether the standard could be used as a blueprint for plaintiff’s attorneys – who have already targeted kombucha brands over everything from sugar and alcohol levels and probiotics claims to whether reasonable consumers expect kombucha to contain live micro-organisms - Crum said:
“That’s one of the ways [ie. civil litigation] in which these standards can play out, absolutely. We’re not a regulatory agency, we want people to take ownership of their process and product and put that on the label and so we could very well see these types of plaintiff-driven lawsuits come up for brands that are out of integrity with our standards.
“That pain point for those brands could quickly bring them into compliance.”
GT Dave: We need a standard of identity
Speaking at the Kombuchakon conference in April, GT Dave, founder of top-selling kombucha and functional beverage brand GT's, said: "We need to establish a standard of identity, so we can all say that is a kombucha and that is not, or what's stopping someone from making water and putting kombucha on it? Right now, nothing, and that is what will happen if we don't do something.”
What is the purpose of standards of identity?
But are standards of identity – which were originally developed to counter economic adulteration in many cases - sometimes used to keep out competitors or stifle innovation, as some firms in the plant-based milk and meat industries have claimed?
And what about brands that say let the market decide and that consumers will vote with their wallets?
“We’re not trying to keep anyone out of the market,” insisted Crum.
“We encourage Coca Cola or PepsiCo to make an authentic traditional brewed raw kombucha product that hasn’t been processed, and we welcome everyone to innovate this space and make novel kombucha products.”
Crum added that new technologies and brewing vessels were being developed to help companies remain in compliance with the law over alcohol, for example, and still produce what KBI considers to be an authentic, traditional, ‘live’ and ‘raw’ kombucha.
“We want to inspire people. Things like the fermenters developed by Bare Bucha and Stout Tanks [which use a rectangular-shaped vessel that helps produce less alcohol during the fermentation], that’s exactly what we need, more kombucha-specific tools and solutions so people can still make live raw kombucha.”
Kombucha: What's the size of the prize?
US retail sales of refrigerated kombucha and other fermented beverages (including hard kombucha) were up 21% to $728.8m in measured channels* in the year to February 24, 2019 driven by strong distribution gains. However, velocities were down fairly sharply, delegates at the 2019 KombuchaKon conference were told.
*Total retail sales are likely much higher after you include data from retailers such as Costco and Whole Foods that don’t share their sales with SPINS and other data providers, she added. The refrigerated kombucha and fermented beverages category comprises non-alcoholic kombucha (below 0.5% abv), hard kombucha, apple cider vinegar, plus other fermented beverages such as water kefir, Jun, kraut juice, Kvass, and whey fermented soda. Read more HERE.