It’s been a perennial question for Hawaii lawmakers: how to protect coffee products grown in Hawaii from cheap imitators composed mostly of coffee grown elsewhere but still sold with labels like “Kona blend.”

Now, two bills — House Bill 1886 and House Bill 1897 — are moving through the Legislature that would tighten label requirements for coffee products bearing Hawaii place names like Kona. To be labelled with a place name like “Kona,” “Ka’u” or another region, the product would have to contain at least 51% coffee from the region.

The law now lets coffee sellers get by with a scant 10%.

One bill applies to roasted coffee, the other to ready-to-drink beverages like refrigerated iced-coffee drinks.

State Rep. Richard Creagan, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee who sponsored both bills, said past efforts have been stalled by the typical things that kill legislation: deep-pocketed opposition, power struggles and personality conflict among lawmakers, to name a few.

Kona coffee has a certain cache, says a Big Island county council member. To protect that, lawmakers are considering a bill that would require coffee sold under a Hawaii place name to contain at least 50% locally grown beans.

Stewart Yerton

But this session might be different, he said.

“There’s a lot of sense that this is the year it’s going to pass, that it’s going to move,” said Creagan, whose district includes a number of Kona coffee farms.

There’s certainly plenty of support. Dozens of coffee producers and individuals have testified in favor of the measures.

Contact Key Lawmakers

Among the more outspoken proponents is Hawaii County Council member Rebecca Villegas, whose district includes the Kona coffee growing region. The Kona coffee brand carries significant cache with consumers, she said. And it simply makes no sense to allow the regional designation to be used for a product containing just one-tenth Kona coffee.

“I don’t know of anyone who says, ‘No, we should keep the percentage at 10%,’” she said.

Past efforts have been blocked not so much by the small Kona coffee farmers, but by coffee sellers who ship in coffee from elsewhere, blend it with small amounts of Hawaii-grown coffee, and package the product as Hawaii brands.

Hawaii Coffee Co., for instance, describes itself as the world’s largest Kona coffee roaster. But it also imports green beans from elsewhere, roasts and packages them and sells them as Hawaii brands, like Lion Coffee, or blended with 10% coffee from Kona or other Hawaii sources.

Villegas said such companies have had the money and influence to fight tougher labeling laws even as they benefited from Kona coffee’s prestige. The proposed laws would protect the Kona brand and help local farmers, she said.

“The only people who claim it would be a hardship are those that have grown accustomed to not being fully transparent and mislabeling what their product really is,” she said.

In truth, this session, nobody has argued much against the changes. The only testimony in opposition, from the Hawaii Coffee Association, called for tightening a definition to make clear that “prepackaged coffee” means “prepared” coffee.

Other States Have Much Stricter Labeling

One argument for tougher labeling laws is that other states do a better job of protecting food and agricultural products. And compared to other state laws, Hawaii’s proposed 50% standard is modest.

Under Vermont law, for instance, “Vermont maple syrup” has to be produced 100% in Vermont. “Idaho potatoes” have to be grown in Idaho, and it’s not OK even to imply otherwise on the label if it’s not true. “Vidalia onions” must be grown in Vidalia, Georgia. “Wisconsin cheese” has to be made in Wisconsin.

And not only does “Tennessee whiskey” have to be made in Tennessee; it also has to be made a certain way — filtered through maple charcoal and aged in new, charred oak barrels.

Wine is so important, meanwhile, that the U.S. Congress has stepped in. Federal law mandates that names of wine-growing regions can be used on labels only if at least 75% of the wine in the bottle comes from those places. But lawmakers in California have supplemented the federal law with tougher standards to protect products like Napa wines.

While the labeling bills may be moving ahead, an even tougher law pushed by the coffee farmers may be stalling. That measure would ban the importation of unroasted, green coffee beans into Hawaii. Farmers say such a law is needed to close a loophole in federal law and protect Hawaii crops from invasive species like coffee leaf rust.

The House Agriculture Committee effectively killed the House version of the bill, while the Senate has yet to schedule a hearing on the companion bill, Senate Bill 2596.

Villegas said blenders could still import coffee into Hawaii; they simply would have to roast it first to help prevent introducing pests with the potential to devastate one of the state’s most valuable cash crops.

“It seems preposterous to me that that would be killed,” she said.

Hawaii’s Changing Economy”  series is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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