Bills, petition seek stricter labeling requirements


Hawaii coffee labeling issues are again percolating at the Legislature.

Rep. Nicole Lowen, D-North Kona, introduced House Bill 355 that seeks to increase the minimum percentage requirement for Hawaii-origin coffee blends. While campaigning last election, the freshman lawmaker said several of her constituents shared their concerns about the current labeling of Hawaii-grown coffee. She felt it was important to bring up the issue again.

Her bill would implement the increases in two different phases, Jan. 1, 2014, and Jan. 1, 2016. However, Lowen said she left the minimum percentage required blank because she wants to discuss it with stakeholders and learn more about the facts.

The law currently requires coffee sold in the state to declare the Hawaii geographic origin of the coffee and it must contain 10 percent or more by weight of Hawaii-grown coffee. It doesn’t prohibit or restrict the use of trade or brand names that contain Hawaii-origin coffee names, such as Kona. This means the Kona name can be used for a coffee blend with as little as 10 percent coffee from Kona and 90 percent coffee from unidentified foreign countries.

“Hawaii is the only region in the world that by law authorizes the use of the name of one of its specialty agricultural products with only 10 percent genuine content,” said Bruce Corker, Kona Coffee Farmers Association’s legislative committee chairman and a board member.

The Kona Coffee Farmers Association is supportive of Lowen’s bill, as well as Senate Bill 558 and House Bill 213, which seek to established certain standards for agricultural products labeled as being Hawaiian or from Hawaii. A few of the association’s members met with Lowen last weekend to give their recommendations. They would like the minimum percentage of Hawaii-grown coffee in blends increase to at least 51 percent in the first phase and at least 75 percent in the second, Corker said.

Lowen said her bill has been referred to the House Committee on Agriculture and the Committee on Commerce and Consumer Protection, now tasked with deciding whether a public hearing will be held. She recommended residents contact committee members if they want the bill heard.

Meanwhile, the Kona Coffee Farmers Association has collected more 150 signatures on a petition to repeal the state’s 10 percent blend law. The petition was sent to Gov. Neil Abercrombie and the signers want his support in repealing the 21-year-old law, which they say is “an embarrassment to the state of Hawaii and an economic burden to Hawaii’s coffee farmers.” Such action would “restore integrity to the reputation of Hawaii-grown coffee,” Corker said.

The petition was emailed and mailed Tuesday to Abercrombie because he has repeatedly indicated his support for small farmers and agriculture in Hawaii. By Abercrombie taking the lead, he will be provide “a small, but very important step toward fixing the deceptive labeling that’s now damaging the reputation and economic viability of Hawaii-grown coffee,” Corker said.

The governor’s office received the petition Wednesday afternoon and is reviewing it, said Louise Kim McCoy, press secretary for the governor’s office.

According to Corker, the Kona Coffee Farmers Association thinks current labeling is misleading and degrades the reputation of Hawaii’s world-famous coffee. The 10 percent coffee blends are confusing to consumers who often don’t know what they’re buying and mistakenly believe they’re getting a blend of several Kona-grown coffees.

Corker also mentioned revealing findings of a 2010 study, “Economic Effects of Blending Kona Coffee — A Preliminary Analysis,” by San Francisco-based resource economist Marvin Feldman. The study found blenders gain extra profit of $14.4 million annually from the use of the Kona name on 10 percent blends and the negative economic effect on the approximately 700 Kona coffee farms might well exceed $14.4 million annually. The study indicates the economic loss for the average Kona coffee farm may exceed $20,000 per year, he said.

Part of the Hawaii State Association of Counties’ legislative package, Senate Bill 558 and House Bill 213 want to modify Hawaii’s labeling law to provide more details on packages of all honey, macadamia nuts, coffee, tea, vanilla and any other plant or animal product grown, packaged or sold in Hawaii. The labels of these products would be required to list the country or region of origin and the percentage of each country’s or region’s portion of the product in descending order of percentage.

According to the bills, all packaging and labeling for agricultural products claiming to contain some, but less than 100 percent of Hawaii-grown products would also have stricter requirements. These products would have to contain a minimum of 75 percent of the named region’s agricultural or animal products to use the words Hawaii, Hawaiian or the name of any Hawaiian region with the word blend. The percentage of other products used, as well as the country or region of their origin, must be listed, too.

These companion bills were introduced by current Senate President Donna Mercado-Kim, D-Kapalama, Kalihi Valley, and House Speaker Joseph Souki, D-Kahului, Waihee, at the request of other parties. Kim and Souki could not be reached for comment as of press time.