By JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER
The Kona Coffee Farmers Association was dealt a massive setback when the governor enacted a law recently that the group claims takes away protections against counterfeiting Hawaii-grown coffee. Gov. Neil Abercrombie indicated that he would veto the bill, but after getting more information from others in the industry, he allowed it to become law earlier this month without his signature.
The law has divided a diverse industry that includes small and big farms, roasters and distributers. According to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, the crop generated an estimated $34.4 million in revenue last year.
The law removes mandatory certification inspections of unroasted coffee leaving the region where it was grown. Proponents pushed for the bill, saying the process was cumbersome and time-consuming, doing little to stop the possibility of counterfeiting. Opponents claim taking away mandatory certification leaves the world-famous coffee vulnerable to a repeat of the 1990s scandal that erupted when inexpensive coffee beans grown in Latin America were being passed off and sold as pure Kona coffee.
“This is a radical departure for protection of Hawaiian-grown coffee that has been in place for 15 years,” said Bruce Corker, legislative committee chair of the farmers association. “The danger is there’s going to be processors who don’t operate in good faith. Nobody is going to be carefully monitoring that.”
Despite being put in place after the scandal, mandatory certification doesn’t protect against counterfeiting because documentation proving where the coffee originated wasn’t required, said Hawaii Coffee Company President Jim Wayman. “Fifteen years later it’s just become a costly, burdensome thing,” he said.
Supporters of the law also include the Hawaii Coffee Growers Association, the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation and the Maui Coffee Association.
Due to budget cuts, there’s one inspector for Kona. When certification is needed, the inspector goes to the site, takes samples back to an office for a testing process that includes brewing and tasting the coffee, Wayman explained. The inspector returns to the site and certifies the coffee.
Wayman noted that many small farmers who support mandatory certification weren’t subject to the rule because they don’t transport unroasted coffee out of the area where it was grown. He said some small farms have a business model of roasting the coffee on-site and selling directly over the Internet.
“For larger growers and those who operate with green coffee beans, it meant a holdup in the ability for them to market their product,” said Russell Kokubun, chairman of the state Board of Agriculture. Not having to conduct as many certifications will free up the inspector to conduct spot checks that will help prevent fraud, he said.
Kokubun isn’t worried about the law breeding counterfeiting.
“My sense is that there’s enough eyes and ears within the industry to alert us to that,” he said.
Many in the industry will still voluntary certify as a way to appeal and market to discerning customers, he said.
David Case, a farmers association legislative committee member, said his group is also concerned the law will lead to a commodification of the coffee. “Small farmers can make a living off it if it’s selling at the premium price it deserves,” he said.
A pound of pure Kona coffee can sell for about $25—more if it’s organic.
Without mandatory certification, the farmers association is considering a marketing campaign to warn consumers they could be getting an inferior product, Corker said. They’re also considering a private certification system.