Kona coffee is a world-renowned specialty product grown on the island of Hawaii, with a rich cultural heritage tied to Hawaii’s history. It is difficult to cultivate, limited in quantity, expensive and special.
Other regions, states and countries maintain strong protections for their designations of geographical origin, which guarantee the quality and authenticity of their regional products. For example, Idaho potatoes cannot be called Idaho potatoes if they are not actually 100% Idaho potatoes.
The same goes for Vermont maple syrup and French Champagne wine, to name a few.
This is not the case in Hawaii, where we allow the use of our treasured geographical origin names to market products as something they are not. The name of geographical origin of a specialty product such as Kona coffee should not be used on products that are not representative of the region, that do not reflect the quality or value that people expect, and that do not contain than 10% Kona coffee.
Under Hawaiian law, we allow the sale of coffee blends containing only 10% Kona coffee – one in every 10 coffee beans, an amount that cannot be detected in a taste test. blind – under the name Kona. The labeling law requires that the “10%” be indicated on the label. Some argue that the important thing is truth in labeling and that consumers know what they are buying. But the reality is that we know these labels mislead people. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be used.
Deception is the goal: using the Kona or Kau or Hawaii name on coffee that isn’t 90% coffee, then reselling it for a higher price by exploiting the good reputation of real Hawaiian coffee to increase the amount of money mixers can win. on imported coffee beans by passing them off as a boutique local product.
While this increases profits for coffee importers, it lowers the price of authentic, locally grown coffee beans, reduces incomes for hard-working local farmers, and exports the economic benefits of our coffee industry out of state instead of keep dollars in the local economy.
A legislative solution
House Bill 1517 proposes to increase the required percentage from 10% to 51%. For many years coffee growers have fought to get 100%, so this bill represents a compromise reached in the hope of moving the needle in the right direction.
In the hearings this bill has had so far in the 2022 legislative session, every farmer who submitted testimony was in favor – all of them. Opposition has come from mainland-owned blenders (“Hawaii Coffee Company”), retailers and restaurants who want to be able to offer a product that appears to be locally produced and claim that they are an establishment that supports local farmers, without having to to pay or charge their customers the higher cost to actually support local farmers.
It is time for the Legislative Assembly to listen to farmers to find out what is best for them, not other self-interested entities who claim to be able to tell us what they think is the better for farmers.
Opponents of changes to coffee labeling laws have argued that inflation and rising costs to consumers mean we should not pass this bill because it would prevent low-income citizens from being able to offer Kona coffee. But the legislature has no obligation to make a specialty product affordable rather than helping the local farmers who grow it.
While the Legislature has a duty to ensure that our citizens have access to food, water, shelter, and more, gourmet specialty coffee is not on that list. The Legislature has an obligation to support our local farmers, not undermine them with state law that devalues their authentic, locally grown products.
Coffee importers also sometimes claim that if they stop buying Kona coffee for blends, the coffee cherry will remain unsold and unused. However, we have seen this refuted over the past few years.
The pandemic has caused a huge drop in blend sales due to a lack of tourists, but coffee cherry prices are at an all-time high and demand has not waned. The Hawaiian coffee market has changed dramatically over the past two decades, and many growers are now able to sell their harvests directly to the consumer through online sales.
Global demand for 100% Kona coffee far exceeds supply and the value of the crop is at an all-time high. Hawaii’s coffee growers have one of the highest production costs in the world, due in part to labor shortages, inflationary pressures, and the threat of invasive species on the island.
Inflation, supply chain issues, labor shortages – these are all arguments why our farmers need our support now more than ever, not arguments why we should continue to allow 10 blends %.
It is time for the Legislative Assembly to listen to farmers to find out what is best for them.
Questions were also raised during a hearing on HB 1517 about enforcement challenges and the lack of technological capacity in the state to test roast and blended coffees to determine authenticity. Coffee blend law enforcement does not depend on DNA or other testing technologies – there are ways to determine if coffee counterfeiting is occurring without these tests.
Moreover, the simple act of passing a law that increases the minimum percentage will have a huge effect on the market, regardless of enforcement capacity, because all but a few bad actors will choose to comply with the law and will not risk the consequences of a violation.
So, while the legislature should also support funding for additional staff and equipment to aid in the enforcement of coffee labeling laws, lack of enforcement capacity is not a valid argument against enactment. of a stronger law. It’s a red herring.
Coffee labeling bills have been introduced and have not been passed by the Legislative Assembly for decades. For too many years, the Legislature has failed to act in the best interests of Hawaii’s coffee growers, to support Hawaii-grown produce, and to protect our local economy.
In the last two years of the pandemic, there has been more talk than ever about supporting local agriculture. This year, it’s time to do more than just talk and empty words. It is time for this law to be passed.