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How Hawaii Coffee Farmers Fought Counterfeit Kona Beans| GuyWhoKnowsThings


On the volcanic slopes of Hawaii's Big Island, hundreds of farmers in the Kona region produce some of the most expensive coffee in the world.

Those farmers recently won a series of settlements, totaling more than $41 million, after a nearly five-year legal battle with distributors and retailers who were accused of using the Kona name in a misleading way.

The class action lawsuit, backed by a novel chemical analysis of coffee from Hawaii and around the world, led some companies to list the percentage of authentic Kona beans on product labels. The plaintiffs said they hoped the large settlements (the last of which will likely be paid this spring) would deter others from selling fake Kona.

“There are probably many, many more coffee marketers who have misused geographic names in marketing, and this will be a disincentive,” said Bruce Corker, owner of the Rancho Aloha coffee farm in Kona County.

Mr. Corker practiced law in Seattle until 2001, when he and his wife moved to Hawaii. He had learned to grow coffee three decades earlier, while he was in the Peace Corps in Colombia.

Kona coffee, known for its smooth, sweet notes, thrives in the mineral-rich soil. The plants receive a lot of rain and the slope of the land provides excellent drainage. The red cherries are picked by hand and “pulped” to separate the seeds, which are dried in the sun. Grinding then produces green coffee beans for roasting.

The Kona Belt includes between 600 and 1,000 farms, typically less than five acres. Limited supply, labor costs and unpredictable pest problems mean beans command a high price, around $50 a pound or more.

Corker said farmers had long been frustrated by the ubiquitous “Kona” beans sold in souvenir shops, coffee shops and larger retailers. They strongly suspected that the products were fake: they were too cheap.

In 2013, a U.S. Supreme Court case caught Corker's attention. The court found that Pom Wonderful, which sells pomegranate juice, was allowed to sue Coca-Cola for marketing a “pomegranate-cranberry” juice that was actually made up of more than 99 percent apple and grape juices.

“The decision said that if you are harmed by false labeling, you can bring a case for damages,” Corker said.

In 2019, he filed the lawsuit on behalf of Kona farmers against more than 20 companies. In the center of the complaint It was a chemical analysis performed in a private laboratory in Salt Lake City.

James Ehleringer, a biologist at the University of Utah who conducted the analysis, said standard tests depended on the amount of water in each sample. That would not have worked on the range of Kona products in question.

“As you go from green beans to toast, you change the water content,” he said. So he borrowed an approach from geology which instead analyzed the relative concentrations of rare inorganic minerals in the grains. These proportions, he said, remain constant even at roasting temperatures.

After analyzing coffee samples from around the world, as well as more than 150 samples from Kona farms, Dr. Ehleringer's team identified several ratios of elements (strontium to zinc, for example, and barium to nickel) that distinguished the samples. from Kona to those who were not from Kona. “We were able to establish a fingerprint for Kona,” said Dr. Ehleringer, who described the general approach. in a 2020 study. “They are the characteristics of the volcanic rock.”

It found that those chemical signatures were largely absent in coffee samples labeled “Kona” sold by the defendants.

Dr. Ehleringer said the method was easy and cheap: about $50 per sample. Other researchers have used a similar approach to test Honey, oils, onions and came.

Some defendants challenged the tests in a legal motion, arguing that Dr. Ehleringer's data had not been replicated by other laboratories. (The case was settled before a decision was made on the motion.)

Proving a legal claim of false advertising comes down to more than just the geographic origin of the product, said Rebecca Tushnet, a Harvard professor who specializes in advertising law and has written about this case.

French fries, for example, do not necessarily have to be made in France, and Swiss cheese does not have to come from Switzerland. “The question is, what does Kona mean?” said Mrs. Tushnet. “The plaintiffs say Kona means it is grown in that region. “If that's what consumers believe, then that's what they're entitled to get.”

The case was settled before the court could answer that question. The largest deal, $12 million, came from MNS, a company that operates a chain primarily in Hawaii called ABC Stores. Another Hawaiian company, Mulvadi, which sells coffee to outlets such as ABC, Amazon and Walmart, offered farmers $7.775 million. Neither company admitted wrongdoing. (The lawyer representing MNS declined to comment. Lawyers for Mulvadi and several other defendants did not respond to requests for comment.)

Dexter Washburn, a retired Kona farmer and former attorney who helped Corker file the lawsuit, said the best way to find real Kona is to buy directly from a farmer, either in person or online. “I don't trust anything you buy at the store,” he said.

Jack Begg contributed to the research.


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