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New partnership uses technology to prove origins of Hawaiʻi coffee — and stop counterfeits

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The Hawaiʻi Coffee Association has signed an agreement with product traceability company Oritain to build a statewide coffee origin database. The association hopes that verifying where coffee comes from will not only help local growers with marketing but also stop counterfeiters.

Chris Manfredi, executive director of HCA, said it is unfair for local farmers to compete against counterfeiters.

“So folks are buying coffee that, for example, may sell for $2 a pound on the wholesale market and then they put it in a bag and they sell it for let's say $18. So there's a tremendous profit margin for the fraudsters out there," Manfredi told HPR. "But then our growers are forced to compete in the marketplace with coffee that is either at or slightly below their cost of production, and certainly not what they need to stay in business.”

The partnership aims to stop counterfeiting not only in Hawaiʻi but also in the continental United States.

Counterfeiting is big business. In 2019, Hawaiʻi coffee farmers sued more than 20 companies for selling fake Kona coffee.

The suit alleged, "...even though only 2.7 million pounds of authentic green Kona coffee is grown annually, over 20 million pounds of coffee labeled as ʻKonaʻ is sold at retail. That is physically impossible; someone is lying about the contents of their ʻKonaʻ products."

Companies in the suit include Costco, Amazon, Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger. Most have settled with the farmers for a total of $15 million.

The new database could lead to better enforcement and possible legal action.

"If we have a coffee in the market that we think is suspect, we can check it and see if it's really what it's purported to be, and then action can be taken against those sellers, regardless of where they're located,” Manfredi said.

Oritain measures a product’s stable isotopes and trace elements to verify its origin. The company will then run this data to produce an origin fingerprint. It can then compare samples throughout the supply chain.

“Hawaiʻi-grown coffee has earned a world-renowned reputation for its specialty status, farming practices and flavor profile. It is coffee that is unrivaled from anywhere else in the world," said Oritain CEO Grant Cochrane said in a statement. "However, with such a strong reputation, brings a temptation to cheat by substituting coffee from other origins and labeling it as Hawaiian. This partnership marks a significant step in deterring this type of behavior by protecting the integrity and reputation of an important specialty crop.”

Manfredi said growers may need to increase prices due with rising inflation hitting fuel, fertilizer and labor.

"Hawaiʻi coffee is known for exceptional quality, rightly so. And we have to earn those high prices every day," Manfredi said. "But no matter how hard we work to enhance our quality, and market that quality, if we're competing on this in the marketplace against counterfeit products, it kind of gives us a ceiling.”

Oritain will present more information on its technology at this weekend’s Hawaiʻi Coffee Association conference in Kona.

Jason Ubay is the managing editor at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Send your story ideas to him at jubay@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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