Coffee – the fourth most valuable crop in Hawaii – is a significant piece of our agricultural pie. And as Hawaii is the only state in the country that produces coffee, the world-famous beans are quite unique. More specifically, coffee from Kona is known for distinct, delicate flavor. Even Mark Twain expressed his love of Kona coffee, writing in his Letters from Hawaii, “I think Kona coffee has a richer flavor than any other be it grown where it may”.
So it was a bit shocking for a local farmer to find Safeway selling its own “Kona” coffee blend on the mainland. Paul Uster, owner of Mokulele Farms, was on a vacation in California when he discovered the Safeway blend selling for $8.99 per pound. Pure Kona coffee can command $25 for just 8 ounces.
It wasn’t the idea of the blend that surprised Uster, as blends are not uncommon. It was the lack of labeling and the fact that he had not seen this particular item offered at any Safeway in Hawaii.
Hawaii state labeling laws require that all coffee sold as Kona blends (1) must contain at least 10% Hawaii-grown Kona coffee and (2) must be properly labeled with the term “coffee blend”, the percentage of the Hawaiian coffee used, and the origin of the beans.
The fact that Safeway did not properly label the coffee it is advertising as “Kona” coffee is arguably deceptive to customers and disrespectful to Hawaii coffee farmers. Uster explained in an Associated Press article, “It degrades the reputation and the quality of Kona coffee. When consumers are not informed it makes it harder for me to make a living”.
Uster brought his concerns home to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture. But given that the labeling laws are state laws, there is little the Department of Agriculture can do to stop Safeway from selling unlabeled coffee in California. In April, the Department of Agriculture did send a letter to grocery chain’s corporate office asking them to respect and voluntarily comply with Hawaii’s labeling laws.
After several months and a claim that the letter from the Department of Agriculture was lost, Safeway is just now addressing the issue. The company spokewoman along with several Safeway representatives met with Uster this week and promised to take a closer look at the blend and make a decision by September 1st as to whether the company will make any changes to the label.
Ideally, Safeway will comply with the Department of Agriculture’s request and adjust their labels accordingly. However, if they continue selling a falsely advertised “Kona” coffee, our local farmers and the coffee industry in Hawaii may suffer. In response, the Kona Coffee Farmers Association may call for a longer term, nationwide boycott of Safeway stores. The clear issue here is labeling laws – the protection they can provide to both farmer and consumer – and the question of the responsibility of the federal government to enact and enforce labeling laws that prevent situations like this from happening.