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HB1552 - Double Identity of Kona coffee blends.
4 April 2011

I earn my entire income from growing and selling 100% Kona coffee.  I am both a farmer and a business owner.  As a business owner, I am quite fond of capitalism.  Capitalism allows me to own and operate my very own Kona coffee farm.  For the most part, I can run my business as I please.  I prefer having a government that doesn't regulate every little thing.

As much as I like capitalism and a free market, I do not like companies that attempt to deceive or lie to the customer.  I believe that when it comes to deceptive business practices, when industry can't regulate itself, that's when the government should step in and enact appropriate regulations.  What exactly these regulations should be is a matter for debate.

Blends In my opinion, the phrase "Kona Blend" is deceptive.  I think it implies a mixture of different Kona coffees rather than what it actually is:  a tiny percentage of Kona coffee mixed in with mostly non-Kona coffee.  On the other hand, change the phrase to "10% Kona Blend" and all of a sudden the consumer knows what they are getting.  This is a simple change and it is exactly what is required by Hawaii state law.

With the deception removed, I think the government and special interest groups should stay out of it and let capitalism decide which products succeed or fail.  It is not up to the government to dictate what I can sell or what consumers can buy.  Of course I think 100% Kona coffee is a much superior product but I'll admit that I may be a bit biased since that's all I sell.  10% blends are less expensive and consumers should be allowed to buy a blend if that's what they want.

Being a free society, many people disagree with me.  And that's where the politics begin.  I have absolutely no desire to be a politician yet as a business owner, I often find myself acting as one.  As much as I dislike politics, if I don't participate then I'm implicitly giving others permission to make the rules for me.

HB1552, known as the Double Identity bill, is an amendment to a Hawaii statute about labeling of Kona coffee blends.  It attempts to close a loophole in the existing labeling laws.

Imagine that you are selling a 10% Kona Blend to tourists and uninformed coffee customers.  You don't want that ugly 10% on your bag but the law requires it.  So what do you do?  Well, some deceptive companies have trademarked a company name with the word Kona in it.  For example, they'll call their company "Kona Classic" then print Kona Classic in giant font on top of the bag and "10% Kona Blend" in smaller type underneath.  Consumers that don't stop to read the entire bag may not notice the deception.

HB1552 attempts to stop this deception.  It requires the company name (ex: Kona Classic) to contain a business identifier (ex: Kona Class Roasting Company).  It also restricts the business identifier to no larger than the contents identifier.  In other words, HB1552 prevents Double Identity deception.  Most importantly, HB1552 does not apply to 100% Kona coffee.  I can continue to use the name Kona Earth without any changes as long as the bags contain 100% Kona coffee.

So if you had to guess, who would you say opposes this bill and who supports it?  The farmers that sell 100% Kona coffee support it and the 10% Kona blend companies oppose it, right?

NO!  It's the other way around!  ... stupid politics.

Spanking There is a small but very vocal group of "farmers" that are opposing this bill.  I use the term farmers lightly here because most of them only have a handful of coffee and do not make a significant portion of their income from farming.  Not being full-time farmers, that apparently gives them plenty of free time to spend lobbying the local politicians with their own wacky agendas.

I was at a "farmer" meeting once and I was talking with a rather outspoken member of this group.  This guy has some odd ideas about what is best for the Kona community and he's not shy about exerting his opinions on others.  In my opinion, he was doing more harm than good.  Still, I didn't know him very well and in an attempt to be civil, I engaged in some typical farmer small-talk.

"How many trees do you have?" I asked.

"Three" was his answer.

"Three thousand?" I asked, thinking that would be about right for a small-scale Kona coffee farmer.

"No, three."

What?!  Only three coffee trees yet he calls himself a coffee farmer!  Who in the heck is this dude?  More importantly, where does he get off lobbying legislature as a coffee farmer when he is no more than a hobbyist?  I'm working my butt off trying to make a living as a Kona coffee farmer and this guy is pushing for legislation that is ill-informed and counter-productive.  I wanted to punch the guy in the face.  Instead, I stopped and reminded myself how much I appreciate free speech so no punching of faces occurred that day.

Freedom of speech is a touchy thing.  Propaganda and misinformation can be powerful weapons.  This very vocal group has published many, many emails and articles that are outright wrong.  I can't decide if they are really that ignorant or if they are knowingly spreading lies.  For example, with HB1552 this group went around telling everyone that it would affect 100% Kona coffee when the bill very clearly states that 100% Kona coffee is exempt from the new rules.  This group gave a link where people could submit testimony but conveniently left out the links, like I posted above, that show the laws themselves.  Was that omission on purpose to hide their lies or were they spreading this misinformation without reading the legislation themselves?

I've read the legislation and it is definitely written in legalese.  As a full-time farmer, my livelihood depends on understanding relevant laws so I take the time to understand this stuff.  There are a lot of amateur farmers in Kona and some of them produce some fantastic coffee.  They are busy with full-time jobs elsewhere so I can understand them not having the time to read every legislation that comes along.  Still, that ignorance is what makes it possible for special interest groups to spread their propaganda and misinformation.

Pure Kona Coffee What is a farmer to do?  I don't want to be a politician yet if I don't get involved, that leaves the decisions up to these wackos.  So I have no choice, being involved in local politics is simply a part of being a responsible member of the community.

As much as political issues like these annoy me, they're really not that big of a deal in the long run.  HB1552 was recently approved by the Hawaii Senate Consumer Protection Committee and will likely be passed into law.  Even so, I'm sure it won't be long before some other issue comes along.  Fraudsters will always find new and clever ways to deceive the public.  In the mean time, all I can do is be honest, make the best coffee I can, and hope that consumers will appreciate and buy my 100% Kona coffee.

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