September 25, 2017
A company named Death Wish Coffee Co. with a skull and bones logo announced a recall Tuesday of its 11-oz cans of nitrogen-infused cold brew coffee because they could potentially contain the deadly toxin botulin. The five-year-old company sells what it calls “the world’s strongest coffee.”
The company, in a statement, said that while no illnesses have been reported, “it looks like our process” for producing the coffee “wasn’t perfect and we’re excited to revisit it ...”
The five-year-old company boasts that its product is “fiercely caffeinated” and it is. A typical cup of coffee, for example, has 12 to 16 milligrams of caffeine per fluid ounce, according to Consumer Reports. Death Wish contains 54.2 milligrams, according to product information on its website.
But that’s not the issue that prompted the recall. Botulinum spores can be found on most fresh food surfaces, according to the National Center for Home Food Preservation. But because they grow only in the absence of air, those spores are harmless. Remove, or lower the oxygen level below 2%, however, and their cells multiply, particularly in a low-acid environment.
That’s just the environment in which “nitro” cold-brew coffees like Death Wish are produced and canned after the beans are steeped for hours or more, becoming less acidic than hot coffee in the process.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, botulism is “a rare but serious illness caused by a toxin that attacks the body’s nerves and causes difficulty breathing, muscle paralysis, and even death.”
The “Death Wish” jokes almost write themselves.
The news produced headlines such as ‘Death Wish Coffee’ Just Got Recalled For A Deadly Reason and tweets about “living up to its name.”
But company founder Mike Brown, 37, says he is very serious about the safety of his product.
“I know our logo and our name might not seem like it reflects” that, Brown told The Washington Post, explaining that they stand for “fueling your passion.”
“Our reputation matters more than our finances at this point.”
Its reputation spread far and wide last year when it won a contest for a 30-second Super Bowl television spot.
“We were in seven stores before the win and now we’re in 150,” Brown told CNNMoney in 2016. “Last year, we had $6 million in sales, and now we’re already at $10 million. We think we can cross $15 million by the end of the year.”
The Round Lake, New York, company rolled out the canned “nitro coffee” drinks in February of this year after what it thought was successful testing of self-stability and other safety concerns for the beverage, Brown said.
But last week one of the testers emailed to say that the reduced oxygen level of the product could create the risk for the growth of the toxin botulin.
“Even though the risks are very low, it would be serious if one happened to develop,” Brown said.
“I’m not in the business of putting anyone at risk here.”
In the past, food companies have recalled canned food over concerns of bacteria that grow in the oxygen-free environments.
Production of the “nitro coffee” has been halted and Brown stressed that there have been no reported incidents.
Death Wish intends to send refunds to anyone who has ordered the canned drink from its website since February, which would cost more than $300,000, Brown said. The company could lose millions more in sales.
The drink was available in 120 stores and some cafés in upstate New York, according to Brown. Death Wish recommends customers throw away their cans.
Brown came up with “Death Wish” in a roundabout way. Speaking with Forbes last year, he recalled how he opened a café in Saratoga Springs, New York at the age of 28 only to have to sell his house and move in with his mother as the business did poorly. But it was from that café that Death Wish Coffee began when customers could come in asking for his strongest cup of coffee. He came up with the name and logo based off a souvenir his girlfriend had given him of a picture of a mean dog that said “Death Wish” under it, he told Forbes.
So far, Brown says his customers have been very supportive.
“I’m surprised by the overwhelming positive response from our customers,” Brown said. “Customers give you their hard-earned money and a lot of trust too.”
Their fan base includes heavy-metal rockers, and fans of NASCAR, video games and comics.
Commenters to an announcement of the recall on Death Wish’s Facebook page have been largely supportive.
“It’s great that you did a recall, it shows you care more about the customer than profits. It’s going to be costly for a small company but you’re doing the right thing.”
Brown says the company will rework its production process for the canned “nitro coffee” and plan to begin selling it again in the first quarter of 2018.
For customers who are looking for an alternative to the canned beverage, the company offers a cold brew coffee recipe (Mason jar not included).
And even at a difficult moment, Death Wish has not lost its identity.
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