Bill would protect Kona coffee brand


By CHELSEA JENSEN

Stephens Media

A bill aimed at curtailing the use of the Kona coffee name by coffee blenders will soon be introduced in the state Legislature.

The "Coffee Origin Disclosure Bill" is a small, but marked, step forward in truth-in-labeling for Kona coffee farmers, said Colehour Bondera, president of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association, which released the draft bill on Thursday.

The bill seeks to require blenders, who currently combine 10 percent Kona coffee with coffee from another often undisclosed origin, to not only identify in larger text on the front of packaging that the product is a blend, but also to disclose where the other 90 percent of the coffee inside originated, he said. Much of the law's current language would remain the same because the draft bill seeks primarily to make it mandatory, not voluntary, for blenders to disclose that information.

"It's a very small step — and that was the point (of this bill) to identify a small step that we can work on," Bondera said. "But, instead of a new law, we decided to change the words in the existing law so it's more truthful and honest to the consumers."

Sen. Josh Green, D-Kohala, Kona, confirmed Thursday afternoon that he will introduce the legislation in late January once the Legislature convenes on Jan. 18. He did not take a position on the bill other than noting he supports truth-in-labeling.

"I really respect the local farmers," he said. "These things have to be discussed."

"(The legislation is) not going to easily go through, but starting to raise these issues will be wise and it will keep people thinking about it," Bondera said. "This is our way to put a small chip on the table to give something to work on to negotiate something we can all agree with."

The current coffee blending law, passed in 1991, has resulted in "a lot of deception from the consumer's perception" and "makes people think they are getting Kona coffee when they aren't," Bondera said. He attributed the confusion to the current law requiring only "10 percent blend" be printed in small text at the bottom of a package, what is known as the identifying statement, and leaving it up to a blender to disclose what other coffees were used.

In the 20 years since the current coffee blending legislation became law, Bondera said no large coffee blending company has voluntarily identified the origination of the coffees used in its blend. He noted some medium and small blending companies do designate the origination of all coffees in their blends.

"There is no consistency, and none of the large-scale people are doing it," Bondera said. "The only reason that I can come up with as to why they wouldn't want to (identify the origin) is because they know ... consumers may not want to purchase the blended coffee, which could make their sales shift or plummet immediately."

Enhanced labeling laws for blended coffees will help protect the Kona name, as well as other regions in Hawaii, as it would ensure a consumer knows just what they are getting in a bag of coffee, Bondera said. He pointed to various areas of the United States, including Idaho, Washington and California, where established laws limit the use of a geographic region in labeling to products originating from a defined area, such as the case of Napa Valley wine.

As the association's newly drafted bill traverses the 2012 Legislature, additional coffee labeling requirements passed by the Legislature last year are set to go into effect July 1. Bondera said that legislation was not supported by the Kona Coffee Farmers Association as it did not address specific labeling issues.

Beginning fiscal 2012-13, it will be illegal to use on a package of blended coffee a geographic origin, such as Kona, outside of a trademark or the package's identifying statement; a trademark that begins with a geographic region unless the name indicates it is a business entity or the coffee is 100 percent from the region; and to not print the identifying statement on the front of the package at the proscribed size.

Email Chelsea Jensen at cjensen@westhawaiitoday.com.