Kona coffee farmers see red in KonaRed coffee drink contents
A Kona coffee farmer organization is complaining to state regulators that KonaRed is misleading consumers.
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A Kona coffee farmer organization is complaining to state regulators that a California company is misleading consumers over the quantity of premium-priced Kona beans in a line of cold-brew coffee drinks.
The state Department of Agriculture, however, said it doesn’t have the jurisdiction or tools to take action and that a state law controlling how packages of Hawaii coffee beans are labeled doesn’t apply to beverages.
The Kona Coffee Farmers Association takes issue with bottled coffee drinks made by KonaRed Corp. The association asserted in a letter that the product violates federal product labeling laws unless more than half the coffee in each drink is from Kona.
Association representatives also asked the Agriculture Department and Scott Enright, the agency’s board chairman, to support an effort to amend Hawaii law so that requirements for disclosing the origin and quantity of Hawaii coffee in packages of roasted or instant coffee apply to beverages.
“We believe this KonaRed product and other brewed and coffee-flavored products using Hawaii coffee names — for example, Royal Mills’ canned ‘Hawaiian Kona Premium Coffee’ with no indication of what percentage of the coffee, if any, is from Kona — should make the same label disclosures,” Cecelia Smith, an association board director, wrote in the complaint sent to Enright.
Hawaii’s law on coffee labeling applies to roasted and instant coffee containing beans grown in Hawaii. It requires that the word “blend” be used to describe coffee if there are beans from different origins, and the amount of Hawaii beans must be indicated as a percentage.
Making the requested change would address a growing number of ready-to-drink coffee beverages using the Kona name without specifying how much Kona coffee they contain.
The complaint against KonaRed questions whether the company, which was founded in Hawaii, is misleading consumers under federal law.
Where to draw line?
KonaRed lists Kona coffee ahead of Colombian coffee in the order of ingredients on its line of 12-ounce bottled coffee drinks that sell for $4 to $5. Under federal law, ingredients must be listed in a descending order of predominance by weight, meaning that there must be more of the first ingredient than the second, more of the second than the third and so forth.
“KonaRed is representing to consumers that a majority of the coffee in this product is Kona-grown coffee and that less than half is Colombian coffee,” the complaint said, adding that this constitutes false advertising that could be pursued by the state Attorney General Department if KonaRed’s product contains a minority of Kona coffee.
Shaun Roberts, KonaRed’s founder, who resigned as CEO Sept. 30 but continues as board chairman, said in an email that the company is adjusting its labels. He did not say how much Kona coffee is in the product or how the label will be adjusted.
Some, but not all, other Kona coffee drink makers refrain from specifying how much Kona coffee is in their products. For instance, the canned Royal Mills “Kona Premium Coffee” made in Hawaii by Ito En only lists “coffee” as one of its ingredients. Java Monster Kona Blend made by Monster Energy lists only “coffee extract” as an ingredient. UCC Hawaii Kona Blend Coffee made in Japan indicates on the front of the can that it contains not less than 10 percent Kona coffee.
Jeri Kahana, administrator of the Agriculture Department’s quality assurance division, said expanding the state law pertaining to roasted and instant Hawaii coffee so that it applies to beverages would be problematic for two main reasons: Many of the products are made outside Hawaii where the department has no enforcement jurisdiction, and the department doesn’t have a way to determine the origin and amount of coffee in a drink.
“I truly understand their concerns,” Kahana said of the farmers, but she added that establishing and enforcing rules for coffee beverages isn’t feasible.
Kahana recalled a former complaint about a Kona coffee candy. “Where do you draw the line?” she asked.
Bruce Corker, a Kona coffee farmer, said in an email that state officials should and can prevent mislabeled products from being sold in Hawaii, and that regulators have the power to obtain coffee purchase records to reasonably determine whether certain amounts of Kona coffee are being used in products.
“Hawaii is not providing protection for its farmers similar to protections for farmers in other states,” he said.