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Kona coffee trouble brews between Safeway, farmers

Published: 31st August 2012 10:57 AM  |   Last Updated: 31st August 2012 10:57 AM   |  A+A-

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, California, 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.

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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