Rep. Nicole Lowen: Support Local Farmers By Fixing Hawaii's Coffee Labeling Law - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Nicole Lowen

Nicole Lowen has represented District 6 (Kailua-Kona, Holualoa, Kalaoa, Honokohau) in the Hawaii House of Representatives since 2012. She currently serves as chair of the Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection.

Kona coffee is a world-renowned specialty product grown on Hawaii island, with a rich cultural legacy that is entwined with Hawaii’s history. It is difficult to farm, limited in quantity, expensive and special.

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Other regions, other states and other countries maintain strong protections of their geographic origin names, 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 applies for Vermont maple syrup and France’s Champagne wine, to name a few.

Not so in Hawaii, where we allow our valuable geographic origin names to be used to market products as being something that they are not. The geographic origin name for a specialty product like Kona coffee should not be used on products that aren’t representative of the region, that don’t reflect the quality or the value that people expect and that contain only 10% Kona coffee.

Under Hawaii law, we allow coffee blends that contain only 10% Kona coffee — one coffee bean in 10, an amount that cannot be detected in a blind taste test — to be sold under the name Kona. The labeling law requires that the “10%” is disclosed 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 that these labels mislead people. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be used.

The deception is the point: to use the name Kona or Kau or Hawaii on coffee that is 90% not that, and then to sell it for more by exploiting the good reputation of real Hawaii coffee to increase the amount of money that blenders can make on imported coffee beans by passing them off as a boutique local product.

While this increases profits for coffee importers, it undercuts the price of authentic locally grown coffee beans, reduces revenues for hard-working local farmers and exports the economic benefits of our coffee industry out of state instead of keeping dollars in the local economy.

A Legislative Solution

House Bill 1517 proposes to increase the percentage requirement from 10% to 51%. For many years coffee farmers have fought to get 100%, so this bill represents a compromise reached in hopes of moving the needle in the right direction.

During the hearings that this bill has had thus far in the 2022 legislative session, every farmer that submitted testimony was in support — all of them. Opposition came from mainland-owned blenders (“Hawaii Coffee Company”) and retailers and restaurants who want to be able to offer a product that looks like it is locally produced and to claim that they are an establishment that supports local farmers, without having to pay or charge their customers the higher cost to actually support local farmers.

Hawaii Grown Big Island Kona Coffee Farm
Kona coffee grown on the Big Island has great brand recognition, but a state law allows for the product to be diluted with other beans. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

It is time that the Legislature listens to the farmers about what is best for them, and not to other entities with their own self-interest in mind who claim to be able tell us what they think is best for farmers.

Opponents of the changes to coffee labeling laws have made the argument that inflation and rising costs for consumers mean that we should not pass this bill because it would price lower-income citizens out of being able to afford Kona coffee. But the Legislature does not have a duty to make a specialty product affordable over helping the local farmers that grow it.

While the Legislature does have a duty to ensure that our citizens have access to food, water, shelter and many other things, gourmet specialty coffee isn’t on that list. The Legislature has an obligation to support our local farmers, not to undercut them with a state law that devalues their authentic, locally grown products.

Coffee importers also sometimes argue that should they stop buying Kona coffee for blends, coffee cherry will go unsold and unused. However, we have seen this disproved over the past few years.

The pandemic led to a huge drop in the sale of blends due to a lack of tourists, yet coffee cherry prices are at their highest point ever and demand has not decreased. The market for Hawaii coffee has changed dramatically over the last two decades and many growers are now able to sell their crops direct-to-consumer via online sales.

The worldwide demand for 100% Kona coffee far exceeds supply and the value of the crop is at a record high. Hawaii’s coffee farmers have among the highest cost of production anywhere, particularly due to labor shortages, inflationary pressures and the threat of invasive species on the island.

Inflation, supply chain issues, labor shortages — these are all arguments for why our farmers need our support more than ever, not arguments for why we should continue to allow 10% blends.

It is time that the Legislature listens to the farmers about what is best for them.

Questions were also raised during a hearing on HB 1517 about challenges with enforcement and the lack of technological capacity in the state to test roasted and blended coffees to determine authenticity. Enforcement of coffee blend laws is not dependent on DNA or other testing technology — there are ways to determine if coffee counterfeiting is occurring without these tests.

Furthermore, simply passing any 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 won’t risk the consequences of breaking it.

So, while the Legislature should also support funding of additional staff and equipment to facilitate enforcement of coffee labeling laws, lack of enforcement capacity is not a valid argument against passing a stronger law. It is a red herring.

Coffee labeling bills have been introduced and have failed to pass the Legislature for decades now. For too many years, the Legislature has failed to take action in the best interest of Hawaii’s coffee farmers, to support Hawaii-grown products and to protect our local economy.

Throughout the past two years of the pandemic there has been more talk than ever about supporting local agriculture. This year, it’s time for more than just talk and empty words. It’s time for this legislation to be passed.

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About the Author

Nicole Lowen

Nicole Lowen has represented District 6 (Kailua-Kona, Holualoa, Kalaoa, Honokohau) in the Hawaii House of Representatives since 2012. She currently serves as chair of the Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection.

Latest Comments (0)

I never understood the people who buy "10% Hawaiian coffee" blends. Should it not be obvious that the distinctive characteristics of Hawaiian coffee are impossible to discern in such a low-percentage mix? To make matters worse, what are the other 90%? At the very least, it should be disclosed whether it's arabica or robusta, as well as the country of origin.To my mind, only 100% Hawaii-grown coffee should be allowed to bear the label "Hawaiian Coffee" without the word "blend" in the same-size font. Similarly, only 100% Kona-grown coffee can be called "Kona Coffee", only 100% Ka'u-grown coffee can be called "Ka'u Coffee," etc.

Chiquita · 1 year ago

I think the luxury market can support 100% Kona Coffee at premium prices. It's time the farmers got the money and respect they deserve.

surferx808 · 1 year ago

Yes! Please pass this legislation. (Or maybe change the rules so that the product has to say "90% non-Kona coffee".)It will help the farmers and the consumers; the only people who will be hurt by it are those who practice on the gullibility of the public.

JohnDeL · 1 year ago

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