A bill upping the percentage of coffee beans that needs to come from Hawaii to be labeled as such got pushback from some coffee retailers.

The label “Kona Coffee” could no longer used by coffee distributors unless more than half of the blended beans were in fact from Kona if a bill moving through the Legislature becomes law.

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House Bill 259 would ban companies from advertising or labeling their coffee as being from a region in Hawaii unless the coffee contains at least 51% of beans from that region.

The current law allows manufacturers to use the regional label on coffee that only contains 10% of beans from that place. The rest could be imported from other countries, and they do not have to be listed on the packaging.

HB 259 also requires the origins for all coffee beans and the percentages to be listed, and beans imported from outside the state to be labeled as “foreign-grown coffee.” The bill would ban using the term “All Hawaiian” on products that do not contain coffee entirely grown and processed in Hawaii.

If a majority of coffee beans don’t come from a certain geographic area in Hawaii, the coffee can’t be labeled as being from that area under a new bill. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022)

“Should you call it Kona Coffee, when there’s only 10%? It should be the majority of the coffee,” said Rep. Kirstin Kahaloa, who proposed HB 259. 

Tourists and locals who have only tried the 10% versions, she said, will finally be able to find and taste true Hawaiian coffee. 

“Consumers who buy a Kona Blend often think they are getting a blend of different Kona coffees when in reality they are drinking 90% foreign beans,” the Kona Coffee Farmers Association wrote in testimony in support of this bill. 

The vice president of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association, Suzanne Shriner, said the current rules devalue the name of the geographic origin because the taste is so diluted. While Hawaiian coffee beans must go through a standard quality check, she said, the foreign coffee beans don’t have to, making the blended coffee a lower grade. 

“They are pirating the origin name,” Shriner said. 

While many farmers and legislators support the bill, companies that manufacture coffee in the 10% packages, such as the Hawaii Coffee Co., are against it. 

Gerard Bastiaanse, president of Hawaii Coffee Co., declined to comment for this story. 

However, Bastiaanse said in written testimony that Kona coffee “commands a premium price.” 

Retailers and restaurants will have to pay much more for the 50% or 100% regional coffee, he said. Bastiaanse said the lower-grade coffee is a budget-friendly alternative that still gives some of the regional flavor. 

Bastiaanse said such legislation could lead to less coffee being produced, used and consumed in the state and could trigger layoffs at Hawaii Coffee Co. He recommended that any action that restricts advertising and labeling  should be withheld until the results of a study approved last year by lawmakers are made public. 

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The study will assess the potential economic impact on coffee farmers and the Hawaii coffee industry from changing labeling requirements. 

Kahaloa said she expects the results of that study to be released in late summer. 

The state’s Board of Agriculture also expressed concerns in written testimony about its lack of staff to police the stricter labeling requirements.

Kahaloa said HB 259 and a similar labeling bill, House Bill 1250, which regulates labeling of mamaki tea, would include enough new staff to oversee labeling requirements. 

The Senate is scheduled to vote on both bills on Tuesday.

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