HONOLULU – Hawaii farmer Paul Uster was on vacation in California when he saw a package of Kona coffee blend in a supermarket that he knew would upset fellow growers back home on the Big Island.
The Safeway brand of Kona blend medium roast coffee didn’t specify what percentage was made from the world-famous bean or whether it was grown in Hawaii – information a law in the Aloha State requires for labels on Hawaii-grown coffee. That law is meant to inform consumers but also protect the integrity of Hawaii’s premier coffee grown on slopes of volcanic rock.
“It degrades the reputation and the quality of Kona coffee. When consumers are not informed it makes it harder for me to make a living,” said Uster, who owns Mokulele Farms and is on the board of directors of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association. “Kona and other Hawaiian coffees are a great treasure to the state.”
Hawaii is the only place in the United States where coffee is grown. Beans grown in the Kau district of the Big Island are also gaining popularity among discerning coffee aficionados.
Safeway’s blend was priced at $8.99 a pound, Uster said, while 8 ounces of pure Kona coffee can sell for $25.
When Uster returned to the islands, he asked for help from Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture. In April, Board of Agriculture Chairman Russell Kokubun sent a letter to Safeway’s corporate headquarters in Pleasanton, Calif., urging “voluntary compliance” with Hawaii’s law. The law can’t be enforced on the Mainland, and Safeway doesn’t sell that coffee in any of its 19 Hawaii locations.
“It is the law here,” Kokubun said in an interview. “I think there should be at least that level of respect that’s paid to that. I think all we’re really talking about here is truth in labeling.”
Months went by without a response from Safeway.
“The letter got lost somewhere in the Safeway system,” said Susan Houghton, company spokeswoman. “We apologized to them for losing the letter.” She said the company recently became aware of the letter when a blogger from Hawaii called to ask about it.
Uster happened to be back in California and met with Houghton and other Safeway representatives on Tuesday.
“We agreed that we would take a look at the blend of our coffee,” Houghton said. She would not specify the percentage of Kona coffee it contains. Safeway has promised to get back to the farmers’ association by Sept. 1 about whether any changes can be made to the label.
“We appreciate the patience of the coffee farmers as we look at this,” she said. “Hawaii is an important market to us.”
The association, made up of more than 200 coffee farmers, plans to move forward with calling for a boycott of Safeway’s 1,700 stores nationwide.
“I felt they were disrespecting Kona coffee growers,” Uster said. “Someone must know about the different labeling laws, because they don’t sell it in Hawaii.”
The labeling law is an offshoot of regulations put in place after a scandal in the 1990s when inexpensive coffee beans grown in Latin America were being passed off and sold as pure Kona coffee. Now labels for Hawaii-grown blended roasted coffee must specify the percent coffee by weight of one of the Hawaii coffees used in the blend, followed by geographic origin and the words, “coffee blend.” Those blends need to have at least 10 percent of Hawaii-grown coffee.
“Kona coffee has beautiful, delicate aromas,” Uster said. So when people drink blends they think contain mostly Kona coffee and don’t taste that flavor, “they wonder what the big deal is all about.”