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Kona Farmers: Coffee Bill On Gov’s Desk Creates More Confusion, Not Less

Kona Farmers: Coffee Bill On Gov’s Desk Creates More Confusion, Not Less by Lynn Nakagawa of

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Kona Farmers: Coffee Bill On Gov’s Desk Creates More Confusion, Not Less

By Lynn Nakagawa  04/19/2011

A bill awaiting Gov. Neil Abercrombie‘s signature is intended to prevent mislabeling of Kona coffee blends. But Big Island coffee farmers opposed to the bill say it will actually make the problem worse.

House Bill 1552, sent by the Hawaii Legislature to the governor on Monday, aims to cut down on what lawmakers say is mislabeling of Kona coffee blends. The bill would essentially limit the use of “Kona” on coffee packaging — unless the product is made from 100 percent Kona coffee beans or if the word is part of a company’s name.

“The intent of the bill is to improve the labeling so it’s clear to the buying public that they are buying a blend instead of 100 percent Kona coffee,” said Rep. Denny Coffman, who sponsored the bill and represents North Kona, Keauhou, Kailua-Kona, and Honokohau.

“I’ve personally walked into the stores and seen some brands that from a big distance away you can’t tell that it’s a blend of Kona coffee or not,” he said. “The intent is to clean up the labeling.”

But many Kona coffee farmers have turned out against the bill, saying the bill would actually create more confusion — not less. The bill has a big loophole: by law, companies could still use the word “Kona” in their packaging if it was part of a company’s name.

“This is a flawed bill,” said Bruce Corker, a member of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association.

If clear labeling of Kona coffee blends is the goal, Corker said, then the bill ought to require coffee producers to define where the rest of the coffee in the blend comes from.

“The coffee should be identified as 90 percent Colombian, 10 percent Kona coffee. If you look at such packaging today, there is no way of knowing where the other 90 percent of the coffee is from.”

Coffman disagreed. “I’ve seen Starbucks blends that identify the general region but not the specific place of origin,” he said. He sees the bill as a baby step toward cleaning up labeling.

Many of the bill’s opponents are members of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association and Kona County Farm Bureau. They say that many tourists and the general public ignore the small text that define coffee as 10 percent Kona and believe it is a genuine Kona blend. They believe the bill doesn’t do enough for Kona coffee farmers who believe this gives their beans a bad name.

“They buy, they taste, and they may never buy again because the taste is not what they expected,” said Clare Wilson, a member of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association. “Their opinion of what Kona coffee tastes like is forever skewed.”

If the bill becomes law, it would be a violation to use the word “Kona” on a label other than in the registered trademark, brand name, or identity statement. The identity statement is the text that often reads “10 percent Kona coffee” on the front of coffee packaging.

The purpose is to limit secondary labels such as “Kona Classic” or “Kona Macadamia Nut Cream” — essentially limiting the use of Kona in blend names but not in company names.

Some of the bill’s opponents believe it was crafted specifically to affect Hawaii Isles Kona Coffee Co., a major competitor of Hawaii Coffee Company, which has advocated strongly for the new regulations.

Many of Hawaii Isles’ 10 percent Kona coffee blends use the word “Kona” prominently, such as in the name “Kona Sunrise” or “Kona Hazelnut Coffee”.

Opponents of the bill believe the state should do more to protect the Kona coffee name.

“The State of Hawaii has failed to protect the Kona name in the way that every other jurisdiction in the world protects the names of their specialty agricultural crops. Hawaii is the only jurisdiction in the world that allows the use of a specialty crop name, like Kona, with 10 percent genuine content,” said Corker.

“The easiest and most obvious step in the right direction for the Legislature to take is to require identification of the non-Kona portion in a bag of 10 percent blend,” he said.

Two bills introduced by Rep. Coffman proposing protections against misrepresentations of Kona coffee died in the Legislature in 2009.

If the governor signs the bill into law, or allows it to become law without his signature, violations would be monitored by the Department of Agriculture.