Coffee labeling dispute flares anew
Some Big Isle farmers want at least 75 percent Kona coffee for the Kona name to be on the label
Two bills that would change labeling requirements for Kona coffee have resurfaced at the Legislature this year, despite a continued division among those in the industry.
Big Island coffee farmers battled each other to a standstill in the Legislature last year, stalling bills similar to those introduced in the current session. The current House and Senate bills would require that at least 75 percent Kona coffee be used for the Kona name to be on a label. The proposals also require manufacturers to disclose the origins of other coffees used in a blend.
Currently, Hawaii law allows coffee to be labeled as a Kona product as long as it contains just 10 percent Kona beans.
But some Big Island coffee growers, represented by the Kona Coffee Farmers Association -- one of three industry groups in the contentious debate -- are firmly backing the proposed law to protect the reputation of Kona coffee and the economic viability of coffee farms.
"Since 1992, the 10 percent blend law has damaged the reputation of Kona coffee and threatened the economic well-being of Kona coffee farmers," the 110-member Kona Coffee Farmers Association said in a petition to lawmakers.
The association has said that it is not opposed to blends of 90 percent foreign coffee and 10 percent Kona beans as long as manufacturers do not use the Kona name.
It said that Hawaii's 10 percent blend law gives an edge to mainland blenders that buy 90 percent of their coffee from foreign countries, which results in profits taken out of the state.
Meanwhile, other farmers and processors who are part of a separate trade organization, the Kona Coffee Council, are on the other side of the debate.
They say the proposed law is poorly written and could have a negative impact on coffee farmers.
"As far as I know there has been no true research on this," said Donna Woolley, president of the Kona Coffee Council and owner of Island Sun Coffee, which has between seven and nine acres of coffee in production.
Woolley said the council is working with the state Department of Agriculture, Hawaii Coffee Association and Hawaii Farm Bureau in securing grant money for a year-long study on the issue before supporting any changes to labeling laws.
Other Big Island farmers say implementing stricter state laws will not solve the industry's core problems.
"We need truth in labeling for Kona coffee in the other 49 states," said George Fike, owner of Fike Farms of Hawaii, a 10.5-acre Big Island coffee farm. "At least in Hawaii a blend has to have 10 percent. On the mainland a blend doesn't have to have anything, it can just say Kona style."
Tom Greenwell, vice president/general manager of Greenwell Farms, which consists of 35 acres of coffee production, maintains that blends are driven by market demand.
Greenwell, which sells about 70 percent of his coffee to blenders, said the demand for 100 percent Kona coffee is only about 25 percent to 30 percent of the market.
"If I choose to only sell to the 100 percent Kona coffee customer I will have no need to buy any cherries from anybody period," he said. "There's a very limited 100 percent market."
That's because the raw Kona coffee product is 10 to 12 times the price of other popular coffees around the world, he added.
Rep. Bob Herkes, D-Puna-N. Kona, who introduced the House bill, said he has a problem with the labeling of a wide variety of Hawaii crops including macadamia nuts, but that the division within the coffee industry must be resolved before changes to labeling laws are made.
However, many in the industry say consensus is unlikely.
"It's not possible to have consensus because what we have is growers who are trying to sell their coffee for as much as possible and processors who want to buy it for the lowest possible prices, so we're on exact opposite sides of the fence," said Christine Sheppard, spokeswoman for the Kona Coffee Farmers Association.