Mixed reviews on coffee label rule proposals


By CAROLYN LUCAS-ZENK

Stephens Media Hawaii

When House Bill 280 became law last year, it created a Class C felony for false labeling of coffee while simultaneously eliminating the requirement that all Hawaii-grown coffee beans be inspected and certified by the state Department of Agriculture.

The law also prohibits Hawaii-grown coffee beans to be shipped outside the area of their geographic origin unless they have been marked with or contain documentation of origin approved by the department.

The department is proposing amendments to administrative rules relating to coffee standards, which is now necessary to coincide with the law, said Jeri Kahana of the Quality Assurance Division.

The department wants to require Hawaii-grown coffee be marked with the grade or low grade and for coffees to be labeled with the geographic region of origin. It has also proposed repealing exemptions to mandatory certification and the coffee quality verification program; increasing inspection fee rates and the fee for an additional copy of an issue certificate; establishing the fee rate for an appeal inspection; and having a record keeping requirement for people who produce, process, transport or distribute Hawaii-grown coffee.

Other changes include establishing a definition of natural coffee; repealing the standards for grade of cherry coffee in Kona, the standards for parchment grades of coffee, and the minimum export requirement for green coffee; and amending standards for grades of green coffee and defect criteria for coffee beans.

The majority of testifiers were concerned about the proposal during a public hearing Thursday, saying the amendments will have very significant and adverse impacts on many Kona coffee farmers. Several opponents echoed Kona Coffee Farmers Association President Cecelia Smith’s comments, claiming the changes will add time and cost to their small farm operations with no added benefits to customers.

Removing the definition of wholesale quantity of green coffee from the rules, Smith said, eliminates the department’s practice of many years of exempting sales of less than 10 pounds of green coffee from certification requirements.

“This exemption for sales of less than wholesale quantities allowed many Kona coffee farms to build a thriving business of selling small packages of Kona green coffee to home roasters on the mainland. The popularity of home roasting green has been growing rapidly,” she said. “There are reports that for some Kona farms their sales of green coffee of 10 pounds or less amounts to more than half of their coffee sales. If the less than wholesale quantity exemption is eliminated, direct sales to home roasters may become impractical.”

Smith also disliked how the proposal places “a significant record keeping burden on Kona farmers for transport of cherry, parchment and green coffee when no sale is involved.” She was concerned about allowing agriculture inspectors to enter any public or private premise and any transport vehicle without a warrant or probable cause. She questioned the constitutionality of this provision and asked if the Attorney General’s Office approved it.

More than 20 residents attended the hearing at the West Hawaii Civic Center, where five opponents and four supporters testified.

Dave Bateman, Kona Coffee Council board member and Heavenly Hawaiian Farm owner, favors the amendments because “they strike an appropriate balance that helps keep Kona coffee, one of the most sought-after coffees in the world.” He said the changes create an easy set of rules that protect, preserve and enhances the industry, as well as “make it easier for the implementers and the farmers.”

Bateman and two other supporters asked for the department to consider adding a sunset, or expiration, of three to five years for the changes. They said a sunset would allow the department and the public to consider the standards again with a fresh look, one that considers the current conditions, challenges and accomplishments, as well as asks where we need to go next and does this still make sense.

Kona coffee and avocado farmer Bruce Corker believes the descriptive names of green coffee grades in the current standards and proposed amendments are deceptive, economically damaging for Hawaii coffee producers, and hurt Kona coffee’s reputation. He said the grades — extra fancy, fancy, No. 1 and prime — are used to indicate the beans’ size and appearance, but also “misleadingly imply a descending level of quality.” He added, “The quality for coffee should be measured by the taste of brewed coffee in the cup — not the size of the beans or their appearance.”

Corker recommended Hawaii follow Vermont’s example. That state changed its grade names for maple syrup by removing the misleading quality connotations. This has resulted in increased income for farmers and producers. He thinks the department should use similar quality neutral grade names, such as Grade A Large Kona Beans or Grade A Kona Prime Beans. “Because coffee cuppers indicate that current defect limits for the various grades do not indicate quality of coffee in the cup, the same defect limit should be used for all these grades,” he said.

South Kona coffee farmer and processor Joachim Oster had several questions pertaining to collected inspection fees, particularly where the money goes, who audits the receiving fund, and what gets paid from it. He said, “any agriculture needs earmarked funds to grow and enforce quality standards.”

Oster also spoke about the importance of the coffee quality certification program, stressing it should be redefined, not eliminated.

“(The program) was originally thought out to prevent delays for large contract shipments and to give autonomy to well-run mills,” he said. “The refusal of the current inspector to accommodate shippers the day before or after when their assigned certification day falls on a holiday makes this very necessary. The workload could be significantly reduced for the inspection office without loss of service to the mills or shippers.”

His solution: Create a program that’s similar to public notaries. Oster suggested having trained, qualified part-time certifiers for inspection and certification services. Such certifiers could have a log book, seal, moister meter, and be able to use available roasting facilities for cupping purposes. The fees could be higher than the official inspection fees and split between the department and certifier, he added.

“HB 280 was supported by many in the coffee industry as the turnaround times for mandatory certification by the Captain Cook inspection office was getting too cumbersome because of under-staffing. Sales were lost especially around the year-end holidays,” Oster said. “A more dynamic certification protocol with trained and supervised, independent, part-time certifiers would rectify this situation immediately and the mandatory certification for wholesale quantities of green and natural Hawaiian coffees can be reinstated.”

Email Carolyn Lucas-Zenk at clucas-zenk@westhawaiitoday.com.

 

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