Hawaii coffee growers remain divided over legislation that would do away with the state’s mandatory certifications of their coffee.
On Monday, Gov. Neil Abercrombie announced his intention to veto House Bill 280, along with 18 other measures. He has until July 10 to formally veto the bills. If he decides against using the veto, the bills would automatically pass into law.
A spokesman for the Kona Coffee Farmers Association on Tuesday described the divided opinion on HB 280 as a clash between small, family growers and large, corporate farmers. Bruce Corker, the group’s legislative committee chairman, said his fellow members were happy with the governor’s intent to veto the bill, and would continue to urge Abercrombie to do so.
“We are delighted, and we commend the governor,” he said. “We appreciate his taking a careful look at what we think is an extremely important issue. … We hope he won’t be dissuaded by a lot of money in that group (of farmers who support the bill). We hope the governor stands for principles and small farms.”
Jim Wayman — president of the state’s largest coffee roaster, Hawaii Coffee Co., and a supporter of HB 280 — said Abercrombie had been misled, and the true majority of Hawaii coffee growers, including both large processors and mom-and-pop operations, are in support of the measure.
“I think it’s unfortunate (that Abercrombie intends to veto the bill). I believe the governor has been misinformed by certain coffee farmers who I believe have an agenda,” he said. “There’s this misinformation going around that the bill would cause broad counterfeiting of coffee … like the Kona Kai scandal. … And that’s simply not true.”
Currently, the state Department of Agriculture is required to inspect and certify all Hawaii-grown coffee. Only those blends that contain a minimum of 10 percent Kona coffee beans, or beans from other regions such as Maui or Ka‘u, may be labeled as originating there. The certifications also identify the grade of the coffee beans. HB 280 would make such certifications purely voluntary on the part of the coffee producers.
Supporters of the bill called for the change to the law in response to complaints state budget cuts have hindered the Agriculture Department’s ability to conduct the inspections in a timely fashion. Currently, there is only one inspector in West Hawaii after a second position was cut during the budget crunch.
Opponents, however, say ending certifications will open the door to counterfeit Kona coffee operations similar to an event in 1996 known throughout the industry as “The Kona Kai Scandal,” in which Kona Kai Farms was accused of taking Central American coffee beans and packaging and marketing them as Kona coffee. The state’s mandatory certifications began shortly after the scandal broke.
In his support for HB 280, Wayman said Tuesday the current state law is ineffective in protecting the Hawaii coffee brand, because growers can mislabel their coffee as being from a particular region, with state inspectors being none the wiser.
“When an inspector comes in to inspect the quality of your Hawaiian coffee, when they get in there and you have 100 100-pound bags sitting there, he has no idea of where that coffee came from,” Wayman said. “When you look at the Kona Kai Scandal, the irony of it is that coffee that had been counterfeited had already been certified. … There is counterfeiting going on right now, today, between Kona and Ka‘u.”
Corker disagreed, saying the system itself works well. The problem, he said, is simply more inspectors are needed.
“All they need to do is put another inspector or two in Kona, and we’ll be fine,” he said. “The cost of one inspector is nothing. … Correcting the delay problem is very, very simple. The important thing is protecting the brand. If we lose the premium prices that the Hawaii reputation brings, it (the Hawaii coffee industry) is going to go the way of sugar and pineapple.”
Bill sponsor state Rep. Clift Tsuji, D-South Hilo, Puna, said Tuesday he was disappointed with the governor’s plan to veto the bill, and expressed frustration about the division among coffee growers.
“This bill definitely went through a journey in the Legislature, and at this point, I’m concerned,” he said. “It’s disappointing to me that large and small farmers disagree on this. A lot of people think we’re talking about Kona coffee. But on every island of Hawaii we have a coffee bean being grown. What we’re trying to protect is Hawaii coffee from being counterfeited. … When you have internal feuding going on, it’s disappointing. We should be protecting our very profitable industry.”