KAILUA-KONA — When it comes to Kona coffee, farmers are almost as concerned with what’s scrawled on the outside of the packaging as they are with the product inside.
Two familiar measures to that effect have passed the House Committee on Agriculture and have been referred to the House Committee on Consumer Protection and Commerce.
House Bill 144 requires any roasted or instant coffee labeled “Kona coffee,” or denoting any other particular geographical region, be comprised of product at least 51 percent by weight from the advertised region. Currently, the requirement is only 10 percent.
Roy Takumi (D-Oahu) has scheduled a hearing for the measure at 2 p.m. on Wednesday. If it clears, the bill will make its way to the state Senate for consideration. Takumi was optimistic about the practicality of HB144 and its possible implementation.
“This one is relatively easy, labeling, because this is before the actual packaging and everything,” Takumi said of the testing process that would be required.
Bruce Corker, a board member of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association, said his organization and its members have been pushing for the change for a quarter century, citing powerful Oahu blenders as the primary roadblock to the relevant legislation.
Raising the labeling requirements to 51 percent would necessitate higher production costs for blenders, as beans like the Kona Typica demand a higher price, or result in reduced retail prices and profits as blenders couldn’t capitalize on various name brands associated with Hawaii.
The measure would also require sellers document percentage by weight of all ingredients and their geographic origins on the packaging.
As part of the language of HB144, Rep. Richard Creagan (D-Hawaii Island), quotes in the opening paragraph a paper published in 2018 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
It states that the Kona coffee brand “does not enjoy any strong protection of its name.”
Creagan and the KCFA have long said it’s the responsibility of the state of Hawaii, particularly its Department of Agriculture, to provide such protections.
Sought by Creagan in a second piece of legislation, House Bill 143, is the application of current labeling regulations, as well as any subsequently passed changes to those regulations, to ready-to-drink coffee products.
Takumi was not as bullish about the implementation of HB143 or its prospects of passing into law. As of Friday, the bill was not scheduled for a hearing with his committee. And the clock is ticking.
“The Department of Agriculture said they can not determine the content of coffee or its blend once it’s in a ready-to-drink beverage,” he said. “It’s very difficult for them to figure out the origin of the coffee.”
Corker challenged that notion.
“That’s an argument made by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture because they don’t want to have to do more work,” Corker contended.
He added Takumi passed the bill through the CPC and onto the Senate last year, where it died, saying coffee farmers are hopeful he’ll do the same again this time around.