Fight Over Coffee Labeling Stalls at State Capitol

Apr 25, 2019

Hawaii state law allows for locally grown coffees to be blended with beans from other regions, creating tensions among growers and distributors.
Credit PxHere

Hawaii’s coffee farmers have failed again to gain additional protections for their crop. It is a recurring issue during each year’s legislative session, which has consistently failed to gain traction.

At issue is the blending of locally grown coffee with beans from other parts of the world. Coffee beans and grounds can currently be marketed as Hawaii-grown as long as they contain at least 10 percent coffee from a Hawaii coffee growing region.

That rule was originally enacted in 1991 and only covered Kona coffee. It has since been expanded to include all of Hawaii’s coffee growing regions, which are Hamakua, Ka’u, Kona, Maui, Molokai, Oahu, and Kauai. 

Farmers, particularly small farmers, have long argued that blending cheapens their product, lowering prices and perceived quality. Many, including Kona Coffee Farmer’s Association President Suzanne Shriner, want to see the minimum raised to 51 percent.

“The 10 percent rule effectively transfers money from farmers’ pockets to large, corporate, mainland pockets… it actually degrades our name so we'd like to see that changed so more money stays with the growers.”

But local coffee distributors have long opposed the move. Companies like Hawaii Coffee Company sell roasted and bagged Hawaii coffee to mega-companies like McDonald’s and 7-11, as well as local hotels and restaurants.

The distributors argue that increasing the blend minimum would increase the price of Hawaii-grown coffee beyond what their customers are willing to pay. Jim Lenhart has been with Hawaii Coffee Company for years and says the increase could backfire on growers.

“The increase would most likely not be accepted. The restaurant business is a pretty competitive business and should the cost become a barrier for these customers, then they would stop buying a Kona blend.”

Growers like Suzanne Shriner are unfazed by that possibility. 100% Kona coffee can sell for as much as $40 or $50 for a bag, compared to as low as $5 for a 10% Kona blend. Shriner argues that farmers will benefit from the rising prices associated with higher minimums.

Not all farmers supported this year’s legislative effort. Those who sell all or most of their crop to major distributors have more to lose should those large corporate customers drop Hawaii coffee.

A bill at the state capitol that would have raised the blend minimum failed to gain the necessary support. Even a watered-down version, which proposed to create an industry working group to study the issue, did not get much traction.

Growers in support of higher blend minimums, and their backers in the legislature, plan to bring up the issue again next year.