Over the last few months, debate has coursed within the corporate structure of Fair Trade International and Fair Trade USA. The end result is that Fair Trade USA and Fair Trade International have developed a set of differing parameters for certification, and as such, are splitting up at the end of the year. Fair Trade USA’s coffee division is making sweeping and progressive changes with the hopes of correcting shortcomings in the Fair Trade program. Goals include making the process cheaper, attainable for estate owners, and granting unincorporated small-holder producers access to certification. Jennifer Gallegos, Director of Coffee Business Development, calls these farmers “the largest population who can really benefit from Fair Trade.

Three Fair Trade USA organizers opened up to a small group gathered for the Bay Area Coffee Professionals Book Club, an irregularly held event housed at cafes throughout San Francisco (this particular BACPBC meeting took place at Sightglass Coffee). For the length of our hour and a half session, Director of Coffee Innovation & Producer Relations Miguel Zamora and Director of Coffee Business Development Jennifer Gallegos spelled out the plan for 2012, and answered questions from the assembled group – it was an illuminating meeting, to say the least. Here are a few highlights:

I read that Fair Trade USA is going to allow bags of coffee that have a minimum of 10% FT coffee carry the FT label. Is this true?

Fair Trade USA: No. Only 100% FT coffee can carry the FT label. That 10% figure applies to non-coffee items like chocolate and sugar. A cookie, for example, that’s primarily wheat (we don’t FT certify wheat yet), can carry the FT logo if they have 10% FT ingredients, like chocolate and sugar.

Will farm owners of big estates who are currently unable to achieve FT certification (because they’re not apart of a coop) be able to get FT certified under the new rules?

FTUSA: We are setting up a pilot program in 2012 with twenty estate owners. Owners that are willing to organize their workers in a union, group, or committee will be able to apply for FT certification. The new rules are laid out on our website.

Are companies in other countries going to carry the Fair Trade USA label?

FTUSA: We have had companies in Europe and Asia express interest in carrying the FT USA label on their products. This is something we are exploring.

This is a shift in the way FTUSA does business, and following our meeting with FT USA reps we consulted with several coffee experts in order to get a handle on what exactly these changes mean. Recent coverage from the New York Times made a point to express both sides of the issue, giving voice to people like Rink Dickinson, president of banana, chocolate and coffee importer Equal Exchange, who characterizes the new standards at FTUSA as “a betrayal.”

The reshuffling at FTUSA is not a universally popular decision, but we see it as a way to bridge the gap between Direct Trade and Fair Trade. There’s potential for FT USA to partner with Direct Trade coffee buyers – and with FT’s ground-level organizational skills and the Direct Trader’s quality-focused buying, the results could be a boon to quality coffee sourcing.