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Kona coffee, Safeway tiff stirs up class-action suit

By Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 9:17 a.m. HST, Sep 16, 2011

A spat involving Safeway and Hawaii-grown coffee growers is still brewing, even after the supermarket giant agreed to change labeling on its Kona blend coffee.

A $5 million class-action lawsuit was filed in federal court in Northern California claiming Safeway profited off the reputation of Kona coffee while selling an inferior product with very little Hawaii-grown coffee.

The lawsuit was filed Aug. 30, a day before Safeway's letter informing the Kona Coffee Farmers Association the company would change its packaging to reflect the percentage of Kona it contains. The farmers had called for a boycott of Safeway's 1,700 stores nationwide after a farmer saw the Kona blend for sale in a California store.

In an effort to protect a world-famous Hawaii product, the state's Board of Agriculture Chairman Russell Kokubun sent a letter to Safeway officials asking them to comply with a law here requiring labels to specify the percentage of Hawaii-grown coffee included in the blend. The law requires those blends have at least 10 percent Hawaii-grown coffee. But because Safeway's Kona blend isn't sold in any of the 19 Hawaii locations, Kokubun could only ask for voluntary compliance.

The farmers' battle inspired the class-action lawsuit, said Janet Lindner Spielberg, a Los Angeles attorney representing the plaintiffs. "It affects their livelihoods and how their product is viewed in the world," she said Thursday in a phone interview.

Coffee drinker Chanee Thurston of Benicia, Calif., is the only plaintiff named in the lawsuit, which is also on behalf of consumers who purchased the Safeway Select Kona Blend since Aug. 30, 2007.

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