Categorized | Agriculture, Featured

Coffee farmers, Kokubun laud Safeway decision to change labeling

(Hawaii 24/7 photo by Karin Stanton)

Karin Stanton | Hawaii 24/7 Editor

Kona coffee farmers can claim a small victory this week, as the Safeway grocery chain has agreed to modify the labels on its ‘Safeway Select Kona Blend’ coffee packages.

In a letter dated Aug. 31, Susan Houghton, Safeway’s director of public affairs and government relations, said the company has directed its advertising agencies to make changes to the labeling.

The letter reads in part:

“… Safeway is not violating any law since this product is only sold outside of Hawaii. This important fact notwithstanding, we recognize the importance and significance of this issue to your members. Likewise, Safeway seeks to support the communities in which we live and do business.

In light of these considerations, we have decided to take the following actions:

* The Kona blend packaging will be modified to reflect that the Kona “blend” coffee will contain a minimum of 10 percent Kona beans; and

* The Kona blend packaging will be further modified to indicate the geographical locations of other beans used in the blend. This new packaging will coincide with the implementation of Hawaii statue 486-120.6, effective July 2012.

We hope that these actions demonstrate not only our desire to work collaboratively, but also our shared interest in preserving the integrity of the Kona bean.”

Houghton also said select Safeway stores in California will begin carrying Royal Kona Coffee with 100% Kona coffee in April 2012.

KCFA had demanded Safeway make the changes to the Kona blend packaging after board member Paul Uster spotted the product on Safeway shelves in mainland stores.

The Kona blend medium roast coffee labeling does not specify what percentage is Kona coffee or whether it was grown in Hawaii. It does indicate it has ‘savory beans from Hawaii’s Big Island’ and does specify it contains ‘100% Arabica coffee.’ Kona coffee is Arabica.

KCFA enlisted state Department of Agriculture chairman Russell Kokubun assistance and he wrote to Safeway in April, urging the corporation to voluntarily comply with Hawaii state law, which mandates labels on Hawaii-grown coffee inform consumers of the percentage.

“We’ve very pleased the response is positive,” Kokubun said after receiving Houghton’s letter. “It shows that mainland corporations can be responsive to the uniqueness of Hawaiian products. They’re following what we have as law in Hawaii.”

Kokubun said he also was pleased Safeway will begin selling 100% Kona coffee at its California stores.

“Just making the product available to their customers out of state is a huge plus,” he said.

KCFA president Colehour Bondera said he was ‘pleasantly surprised’ by the letter, but regretted that the grocery giant, which is based in California, had been so slow to respond. KCFA called for a nationwide boycott of Safeway stores and staged a protest Aug. 11 outside the Kona store.

“It was an arduous process they put us through in terms of communication,” he said. “We went four months with nothing. But, on behalf of the association, we are pleased.”

In his reply to Houghton, Bondera asked when the packaging will be modified and whether the state DOA and KCFA will have an opportunity to review and provide input for the new labeling.

He also said he wants to know what percentage of Kona coffee is in packages of Safeway Select Kona Blend that are currently on store shelves.

Bruce Corker, chairman of the KCFA Legislative Committee, said he is encouraged by Safeway’s relabeling pledge.

“We’re very pleased. They’ve said they’ll do what our boycott resolution asked. This is a positive step,” he said. “You really shouldn’t be using the Kona name unless there is a majority of Kona coffee in the bag.”

In an unrelated development, Corker and Bondera confirmed a lawsuit was filed Aug. 26 in California over deceptive consumer practices and specifically mentions the Kona coffee packaging.

The lawsuit – Thurston vs. Safeway – was filed by attorney Janet Lindner Spielberg on behalf of the lone plaintiff and seeks nationwide class-action status.

This lawsuit is significant because it was filed outside Hawaii, where no laws protect the Kona coffee brand. Also, it targets consumer expectations of a Kona product; previously Kona farmers have battled to safeguard their own product.

“It will be very interesting to have a court look at this issue,” Corker said. “We’ll definitely be watching this very closely.”

This is KCFA’s complete statement in response to Hougthon’s letter:

By letter dated Aug. 31, 2011, Safeway Stores notified the Kona Coffee Farmers Association and Russell Kokubun, chairman of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, that it will make requested modifications in the labeling of “Safeway Select Kona Blend” coffee sold by Safeway on the mainland.

In July, the Kona Coffee Farmers Association called for a nationwide boycott of all Safeway stores in response to Safeway’s disregard of concerns about deceptively labeled “Safeway Select Kona Blend.”

The KCFA’s Boycott resolution also noted that Safeway had for more than four months failed to respond to a letter from HDOA Chairman Russell Kokubun sent to Safeway “strongly urging voluntary compliance with our coffee labeling laws”.

On Aug. 2, Safeway Director of Public Affairs & Governmental Relations Susan Houghton and other Safeway officials met with KCFA Board member Paul Uster at Safeway headquarters in Pleasanton, Calif., to review the concerns of Kona coffee growers.

Houghton committed to review those concerns and to determine “[w]hether or not we can increase the Kona blend to the 10% criteria cited by the Hawaii labeling law on coffee.”

In her Aug. 31 letter Houghton states that Safeway agrees:

1 — The Kona blend packaging will be modified to reflect that the Kona “blend” coffee will contain a minimum of 10 percent Kona beans; and

2 — The Kona blend packaging will be further modified to indicate the geographical location of other beans used in the blend.

Safeway has also committed to offer packages of 100% Kona coffee to Safeway customers in California, beginning next year.

Colehour Bondera, President of the KCFA, in responding to Ms. Houghton has stated, “I want to express to you my thanks, and that of Kona’s coffee farmers, for the decision of Safeway to follow the requests of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association and Russell Kokubun, Chairman of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture … We believe these are important steps toward fair labeling and fair use of the Kona name.”

View the Houghton letter: www.konacoffeefarmers.org/Safe…

View the Bondera response: www.konacoffeefarmers.org/Houg…

To review the Kona Coffee Farmers Association’s position statement: www.konacoffeefarmers.org/10_P…

The Kona Coffee Farmers Association is a volunteer, non-profit, community-based organization of coffee farmers with the mission to promote and protect the economic interests of Kona coffee farmers who grow and sell 100% Kona coffee and to seek greater legal protection of the Kona coffee name.

— Find out more:
www.konacoffeefarmers.org

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