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If ingested, the "pepper" could be deadly

Tim Nelson
April 24, 2018

In recent times, people have come up with plenty of creative uses for coffee waste. But in the Vietnamese province of Dak Nong, one such effort was less about sustainability and more about scamming, with potentially toxic consequences.

Last week, local police and representatives from Vietnam’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment raided a coffee plant in the Central Highlands belonging to Nguyen Thi Thanh Loan after complaints of suspicious activity on the premises. As it turns out, Loan,her husband, and several others were involved in a scheme to pass off waste coffee beans and a dye drawn from a chemical compound found in D batteries as black pepper.

In addition to arresting Loan, her husband, and three others on suspicion of food safety violations, Dak Nong police confiscated 21 tons of the toxic mixture, along with 192 kilograms of destroyed D batteries. According to lab tests, the dye applied to the coffee waste contained manganese dioxide, which can be fatally toxic to humans even in small doses. Dirt and rock dust were also added to the ersatz mixture to give it an inauthentic, earthy texture.

While we might not associate Vietnam with coffee exports, the southeast Asian country leads the world in the production of Robusta, a lower-end cousin of the Arabica bean that usually winds up in instant coffee, That might explain how authorities found twelve metric tons of the bean byproduct at Loan’s pepper counterfeiting center.  

Loan told police that she’d been passing off poisonous black pepper as the real deal for years, and had sold three tons of it to a trader in the nearby province of Binh Phuoc so far in 2018. Thankfully, Nguyen Nam Hai, chairman of the Vietnam Pepper Association, said he “[doesn’t] think this dirty product  could end up being exported” according to reporting from Reuters.

While it's unclear if the manganese dioxide and spent bean mixture was ever sold as actual coffee, Vietnam’s government will take major steps to safeguard the reputation of an agricultural sector that employed 2.6 million of its citizens in 2014 according to the BBC.  Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc held a press conference stressing the need for a serious investigation to assure the coffee-drinking public that the country’s Robustica beans pose no threat of toxicity.

If convicted, Loan and her co conspirators could face up to 20 years behind bars.

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