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Kona coffee trouble brews between Safeway, farmers

By Jennifer Sinco Kelleher

Associated Press


<br /><br />Star-Advertiser  / 1997<br />The Kona Coffee Farmers Association is backing a measure that would require more detailed labeling on packages of coffee products that blend Hawaii-grown beans -- such as the Kona-grown ones above -- with coffees grown elsewhere.<br />

A national grocer said it has changed its label on packages of Kona coffee blends, making good on a promise it made last year to a group of Hawaii coffee farmers. 

But the Kona Coffee Farmers Association said Thursday Safeway hasn’t fully honored that promise. 

Last year, Safeway agreed to change the label on Kona coffee blend products sold on the mainland to add the word “10 percent minimum Kona blend.” That was after the association called for a boycott of the company’s 1,700 stores nationwide because farmers believed the labels were misleading and degraded the reputation of Hawaii’s world-famous coffee. 

Safeway doesn’t sell the coffee blend in any of its Hawaii locations, so the company wasn’t subject to a law in the Aloha State that requires labels reflect the percentage of Hawaii-grown coffee, which needs to be at least 10 percent for the state designation. 

Instead, the state Department of Agriculture asked Safeway to voluntarily comply with Hawaii’s law. 

The grocer, which is based in Pleasanton, Calif., agreed and promised to begin selling 100 percent Kona coffee in some California stores. 

The Kona Coffee Farmers Association has been watching Safeway closely for these changes. The association said in a letter to Safeway that members have seen the old packaging on shelves in some mainland stores and is disappointed the company hasn’t yet started selling pure Kona coffee.

“Given the product shelf life, packaging used before the (changes) may still exist on store shelves or elsewhere in our distribution chain,” said a letter from Brian Dowling, Safeway vice president of public affairs, adding that the company doesn’t plan to destroy or dispose of those products.

Bruce Corker, a member of the association board of directors, said, “Our people have been in six different stores and they have yet to see the 10 percent label. All they’ve seen is packaging that doesn’t disclose the minimum 10 percent content.”

Dowling’s letter said that Safeway hadn’t been able to sell 100 percent Kona coffee, but still planned to do so. He blamed the berry borer, a beetle that has destroyed coffee crops in Kona and rocked an industry that generates $30 million in annual sales. 

“Yes, there’s a reduction in the coffee output ... but it’s a relatively minor percentage,” Corker said. “There is 100 percent Kona coffee available. It’s not that it can’t be purchased.”

Safeway spokeswoman Teena Massingill said the company is surprised by the association’s response. 

Jim Wayman, president of Hawaii Coffee Co., the state’s largest roaster of Kona coffee, said Safeway has contacted him and tried to buy 100 percent Kona coffee since last year, but it’s tough to supply the quantity Safeway needs and ship it from Hawaii to California.

“I believe Safeway is being treated unfairly by a few farmers in Kona,” he said. 

The farmers’ battle against the supermarket giant inspired a $5 million class-action lawsuit 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.

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Carang_da_buggahz wrote:
If the state had acted quicker and more decisively when the berry borer was first detected, maybe Kona coffee growers would not be in the predicament that they find themselves in today.
on August 31,2012 | 06:03AM
Larry01 wrote:
If budget cuts hadn't been made so severely in the past several years, they might have been able to act faster. People who constantly complain about taxes and "wasting" money on government programs never figure this out.
on August 31,2012 | 08:50AM
loquaciousone wrote:
There is right way and a safe way to do it.
on August 31,2012 | 07:54AM
akuman808 wrote:
It's interesting that KGA and the State Dept. of Ag would go after only Safeway, while the other large Hawaii Kona coffee company has been selling their white bag without the 10% Kona statement on their bags for years in stores in NoCal and the military commissaries. Why the selective and bias approach??
on September 1,2012 | 05:40AM
busterb wrote:
Lousy huh? I guess that's why people eat their sandwiches without paying.
on September 2,2012 | 08:02AM
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