Stricter law needed to protect Kona beans
The Hawaii County Council wants the state to increase the bean minimum needed to label coffee blends with the Kona name.
WHILE crops like pineapple and sugar that were once closely identified with Hawaii disappear from island farmlands, Kona coffee remains a premium product unmatched by any other grown in the United States.
How much longer the coffee can hold on to its cachet will largely depend on protecting the brand from blends that cash in on the Kona name though they contain very little of the genuine beans.
Legislation that clearly distinguishes the specialty coffee from inferior commodity products is sorely needed, if not on the federal level, then at least at the state's. Failing that, Hawaii could soon lose an important crop.
The Hawaii County Council recently added its voice to a continuing dispute about what can be called Kona coffee, seeking to change a state law that allows "Kona" on labels when a mere 10 percent of the beans are used in a mixture.
The Council wants the requirement increased to 75 percent, a proposal the state Legislature considered last year along with another measure setting the minimum at 50 percent.
STAR-BULLETIN / 2000
Candy Takeishi of Kona picks coffee beans on the Doutor Coffee farm on the Big Island.
Both bills died when a dysfunctional industry group could not agree on supporting either. That's because the Kona Coffee Council is generally divided between those who grow the coffee and those who process the beans.
Farmers could see their crop reap far higher returns along with the higher content requirement, but processors fear they would have to raise retail prices, possibly cutting into sales and profit margins.
The problem is perspective. Processors see slapping "Kona" on labels as a way to increase sales volume, thereby increasing demand. But many farmers view their harvests as a high-value niche product whose prices should reflect its quality, not diluted by blended quantity.
The County Council's resolution asks lawmakers to set the minimum bean level at 75 percent, based on a California law designed to protect that state's valued Napa wine grapes and its vintners' reputation from being exploited.
The state's 10 percent requirement has already damaged Kona coffee's reputation. A Consumer Reports test in 2004 declared "Kona coffees can be second rate," complaining that the blended brews tasted "woody, bitter, sour and astringent."
Though a sharp-eyed consumer would notice that the coffees are blends, the Kona name is what sells the products. And if the Kona bean isn't enough to boost the flavor of inferior coffees, the brand itself will suffer.
Much as they work to support Hawaii's tourism industry, state lawmakers are obliged to assist coffee farmers. They also must protect consumers from being deceived about the brew they are sipping.