Kona coffee labelling study underway
By Laura Ruminski West Hawaii Today lrumi[email protected] | Wednesday, August 9, 2023, 12:05 a.m.
A study is underway to determine the economic impact of requiring a minimum 51% Hawaiian coffee beans when using the regional name in blends.
For decades, legislation has been introduced to regulate the percentage of locally grown coffee in blends that name a specific Hawaii region on labeling. Attempts to pass this legislation have previously failed, however in the 2022 session the bill was passed by the House with a 51% minimum for blends and sent to the Senate. Senate Agriculture and Environment Chair Mike Gabbard did a gut and replace maneuver to remove the 51% requirement and replace it with a “study”.
The senate passed the measure to set aside $100,000 for the Department of Agriculture to conduct an independent study to assess the economic impact of Hawaii’s coffee labeling laws on local coffee farmers and the industry.
“Analysis shall include studying the impacts of a change to a minimum coffee blend ratio of fifty-one per cent and one hundred per cent,” the bill, signed by former Governor Ige stated. The measure also directed the study to include consultation with coffee farmers, including the Hawaii Coffee Association, Kona Coffee Farmers Association, and other stakeholders in the coffee industry within Hawaii.
The study, per the bill, would be due by Jan. 1, 2024, to be considered by during the legislative session that year.
HB1517 twice provides that the HDOA study is to be “independent”.
A request for Proposal was issued by HDOA on May 1 and in part reads “entities submitting proposals must be impartial to the effects on different industry stakeholders such as coffee farmers, processors, roasters, packers, distributors, millers, coffee associations, restaurant supply and other retail business interests.”
Guild Consulting of Honolulu was awarded the contract to conduct the study.
The Guild Consulting Proposal states that the primary research work on the study would be done by Dr. Paul Brewbaker, Project Subcontractor.
The Proposal refers to a Declaration filed by Brewbaker in 2022 in a federal court lawsuit on behalf of defendant L&K and favoring other defendant coffee marketers in opposition to certification of a class of Kona coffee farmers who were alleging deceptive and fraudulent labeling of Kona coffee.
The Proposal characterizes the Declaration as “unbiased” and “objective”. However, less than a year ago Brewbaker was compensated for preparing the Declaration which was submitted on behalf of coffee roasters and marketers and against the motion to certify a plaintiff class of Kona coffee farmers.
As indicated in the first sections of the Reply brief filed by Kona coffee farmers in support of class certification, the more than 20-year-old magistrate opinion on which the Declaration was seeking to rely had previously been emphatically rejected by the judge—and was subsequently rejected again when the court granted certification of the Kona coffee farmers’ class action. The Brewbaker Declaration was an unsuccessful attempt to support the defendant marketers, including marketers doing business in Hawaii.
Kona coffee farmer Bruce Corker was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against L&K.
“The statute and the HDOA’s RFP require that the study be conducted by “independent” and “unbiased” researchers. The “principal researcher” and “project subcontractor” for the entity granted the contract for the study is neither independent nor unbiased,” said Corker. “In 2022 this “principal researcher” was paid for submitting a court-filed declaration and giving a deposition arguing in favor of a major defendant coffee roaster’s opposition to certification of the Kona coffee farmers class action alleging false and misleading coffee labeling. This appearance of bias and lack of independence seems to favor the interests of big coffee processors and marketers, and not the interests of farmers for truth-in-labeling for Hawaii-grown coffee.”
L&K Coffee Company settled with Kona farmers for $6.15 million in the class action claims against it. L&K was the defendant that hired Brewbaker to give his declaration and deposition in opposition to the farmers’ motion for class certification. The court rejected Brewbakers’ arguments and certified the class action.
Guild Consulting partner Iqbal Ashraf maintains that the study being performed will be unbiased.
“Dr. Paul Brewbaker is a distinguished economist whose role in this project will be to impartially analyze economic data. He has done this previously in various capacities, including serving as a panelist, expert witness, and in numerous other roles as a professional economist,” said Ashraf. “Dr. Brewbaker’s role in previous projects and in this one can be characterized as providing objective expert opinion based on sound economics. Data is impartial, as our study will reflect.”
Ashraf encourages individuals who are interested in potentially taking part in discussions through planned focus groups, to email their name and contact information to him at [email protected].
As of press time Tuesday, the Department of Agriculture did not respond to multiple requests for comment.