Lawmakers approve changes to labeling locally grown coffee

HONOLULU – Kona coffee farmers are asking the governor to veto a bill that removes mandatory certification requirements for Hawaii-grown coffee.

The bill was one of dozens that cleared the full House and the Senate on Tuesday, two days before the end of the 2012 legislative session.

On Thursday, lawmakers will vote on the remaining measures, including the $11.2 billion state budget bill and related fiscal measures.

Kona coffee farmers have opposed House Bill 280 throughout the session. The measure addresses a staffing shortage at the state Department of Agriculture, which has had to eliminate all but one coffee inspector position in West Hawaii Island.

Currently, coffee labeled as Kona-grown must be inspected and certified by the state. The inspectors verify that blends labeled as Kona actually contain at least 10 percent Kona-grown coffee.

If the bill becomes a law, however, inspections will become voluntary and growers will provide their own documentation of the coffee’s origin.

Rep. Cynthia Thielen, R-Kaneohe-Kailua, tried unsuccessfully to get the bill amended on the floor. Her proposal would have inserted language from a food sustainability measure that failed to pass out of committee.

“The bill talks about coffee,” said Rep. Angus McKelvey, D-Olowalu-Kapalua, who opposed Thielen’s floor amendment because the coffee inspection measure would have died if the House and the Senate passed different versions of the bill.

“It’s critical to the coffee industry,” said McKelvey, who pointed out that the inspector shortage hurt farmers who have to deal with delayed inspections before they can get their coffee to market.

Bruce Corker, legislative committee chairman for the Kona Coffee Farmers Association, said Tuesday afternoon that the industry group has collected 529 signatures on a petition opposing the bill.

From the Kona coffee grower’s perspective, eliminating mandatory inspection requirements will open the door for counterfeiters to sell off-grade coffee under the premium Kona coffee name.

“This is a bad bill and it’s going to have disastrous effects for quality and reputation for Kona coffee,” Corker said.

House Agriculture Chairman Clift Tsuji also opposed Thielen’s amendment – and defended the version of the bill that ultimately passed. “I believe there is support, as far as agriculture is concerned,” he told his colleagues.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie has 45 days to decide whether to sign the bill, veto it, or let it pass into law without his signature. His press secretary said he has not had time to review the final draft.

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