Saturday, October 5, 2013

Is that really Kona coffee you're buying? Why the law's not helping you as much as it could.

So that Kona coffee you're buying.

Image courtesy mikepetrucci.

Does the law help you know if it's legit?

A whole patchwork of antitrust, taxation, and food laws and regulations governs coffee imports. Since 1996, import marking laws have specifically exempted coffee from the requirement that a product be labeled with its country of origin.

In 1992, the Hawaiian legislature passed a law requiring that coffee sold as "Kona" coffee in Hawaii contain at least 10% of Kona coffee. Why just 10%? Blending is probably the best way for Kona coffee to get itself sold, since it is rare and expensive.

But this Hawaiian law has no effect anywhere but Hawaii. On the mainland, you could buy a coffee blend labeled "Kona" that contained exactly 0% of Kona coffee.

Or so Michael Norton, executive of Kona Kai Farms in Berkeley, CA, probably thought. For several years, Kona Kai Farms packaged an inferior blend of Central American coffees and sold it as "Kona."

In 1997, a group of Kona farmers sued Kona Kai Farms (alongside various retailers like Starbucks and Peet's who sold Kona Kai products) in a civil class action suit. The parties settled in 1999. Kona Kai Farms agreed to pay $1 million to 650 Kona growers and the retailers agreed to buy coffee from REAL Kona growers for several years. Meanwhile, the United States charged Norton with wire fraud and tax evasion. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 months in prison by a district judge.

Today, “100% Kona Coffee" and "100% Hawaiian Coffee" are registered U.S. marks with the Patent and Trademark Office.

But as to what percentage of Kona is in that coffee you're drinking? Your guess is as good as mine.

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