Labeling study for coffee could resolve dispute


POSTED: Thursday, November 12, 2009

Nothing can compare in the morning with Kona coffee, and many roasters are quick to capitalize on its reputation, even those that use only a few beans harvested on the Big Island. An objective study is needed to determine if companies should be forbidden from labeling their products as “;Kona blend”; while including in small print on their packages that as little as one-tenth of the blend came from Kona.

The Hawaii County Council has asked the Legislature since 2006 to change a state law that allows “;Kona blend”; on labels when as little as 10 percent of the beans is used in the mixture, as long as it is stated on the package in small letters. A bill that would have increased the threshold to 51 percent died in committee in last year's legislative session.

David Gridley, president of Maui Oma Coffee Roasting Co., testified in the Legislature that many companies blend Hawaiian coffees, which now are the state's third largest agricultural product. Requiring roasters to claim on their packages “;Kona blend”; only if more than half the beans came from the Big Island would “;have a devastating impact on the entire industry,”; he said.

However, some coffee growers are concerned that the lack of Kona's rich flavor in such a blend could lower the reputation of Kona. A Consumer Reports test five years ago declared that “;Kona coffees can be second rate”; if mixed with other coffees, describing the taste of some blended brews as “;woody, bitter, sour and astringent.”; Hawaii residents may appreciate the difference between pure Kona coffee and blends, but tourists especially can become confused and end up “;paying a premium price for cheap foreign coffee,”; Bruce Corker, president of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association, told the Star-Bulletin's Pat Gee.

Corker attended a seminar in Arkansas four months ago and heard about similar “;geographical identity issues”; faced by producers of Idaho potatoes, Napa Valley wine and Missouri Northern pecans. Problems of “;counterfeiting and unscrupulous marketing are strikingly similar to those we face with Kona coffee,”; he reported back to his association's more than 200 members.

The controversy has divided Kona coffee farmers, which number as many as 700, because roasters of blends comprise a lucrative market. The 51 percent proposal “;is an attempt by a few contrary, disgruntled, vocal farmers in Kona that represent a fraction of the coffee produced in the state,”; Gridley testified to lawmakers in February.

Corker's association opposes a study proposed by state Rep. Denny Coffman of Kona to determine the likely effects of increasing the percentage of Kona coffee to claim “;Kona blend,”; calling it a tactic by Honolulu-based blenders to “;study and stall”; the issue. But such a study would be worthwhile if it determines that allowing a profitable industry segment to continue business would be of no risk to the more established brand.