On the volcanic slopes of Hawaii’s Big Island, hundreds of farmers in the Kona region produce some of the world’s most expensive coffee.
Those farmers recently won a series of settlements – totaling more than $41 million – following a nearly five-year legal battle with distributors and retailers who were accused of using the Kona name in a misleading manner.
A class-action lawsuit, aided by a new chemical analysis of coffee from Hawaii and around the world, prompted some companies to include the percentage of authentic Kona beans on product labels. The plaintiffs said they hope the hefty settlement — the last of which will likely be paid this spring — will deter others from selling counterfeit Kona.
Bruce Corker, owner of Rancho Aloha Coffee Farm in the Kona District, said, “There are probably many more marketers of coffee who have misused geographic names in marketing, and that would be discouraging.”
Mr. Corker practiced law in Seattle until 2001, when he and his wife moved to Hawaii. He learned to grow coffee three decades ago while serving in the Peace Corps in Colombia.
Kona coffee, known for its sweet and mellow note, thrives in mineral-rich soils. The plants receive plenty of rainfall, and the slope of the land provides excellent drainage. Red cherries are picked by hand and “pulped” to separate the seeds, which are dried in the sun. Milling is followed by production of green coffee beans for roasting.
The Kona Belt consists of approximately 600 to 1,000 farms, usually smaller than five acres. Limited supplies, labor costs, and unpredictable pest problems make the price of beans very high, about $50 per pound or more.
Mr Corker said farmers had long been frustrated by the ubiquitous “Kona” beans sold in souvenir shops, coffee shops and large retailers. He strongly suspected that the products were counterfeit: they were very cheap.
In 2013, a US Supreme Court case caught Mr. Corker’s attention. The court found that Pom Wonderful, which sells pomegranate juice, was allowed to sue Coca-Cola for marketing “Pomegranate Blueberry” juice, which was actually more than 99 percent apple and grape juice.
“The ruling says, if you suffer harm from mislabeling, you can bring a case for damages,” Mr. Corker said.
In 2019, he filed a lawsuit against more than 20 companies on behalf of Kona farmers. But complaint center There was a chemical analysis done in a private laboratory in Salt Lake City.
James Ehleringer, the University of Utah biologist who ran the analysis, said standard tests depend on the amount of water in each sample. This problem does not work on a variety of Kona products.
“As you move from green beans to roasted beans, you’re changing the amount of water,” he said. so he borrowed A perspective from geology Instead, relative concentrations of rare, inorganic minerals were observed in the beans. These ratios remain constant even at roasting temperatures, he said.
After testing coffee samples from around the world, as well as more than 150 samples from Kona farms, Dr. Ehleringer’s team identified several element ratios – for example strontium to zinc, and barium to nickel – that influenced Kona. isolated from non-Kona samples. “We were able to establish a fingerprint for Kona,” said Dr. Ehleringer, who described the general method. In a 2020 study, “These are the characteristics of volcanic rock.”
They found that those chemical signatures were largely absent from samples of “Kona” labeled coffee sold by the defendants.
Some defendants contested the trial in a legal motion, arguing that Dr. Ehlinger’s data had not been replicated by other laboratories. (The matter was settled before a decision was rendered on the motion.)
Rebecca Tushnet, a Harvard professor who specializes in advertising law, said the legal claim of false advertising is more important than the geographic origin of the product. wrote about this case,
For example, French fries do not need to be made in France, and Swiss cheese does not need to come from Switzerland. “The question is, what does Kona mean?” Ms. Tushnet said. “Plaintiff says Kona means it is grown in that area. If consumers believe that, that’s what they deserve.”
The case was settled before the court could answer that question. The largest settlement, $12 million, came from MNS, a company that operates a chain called ABC Stores mostly in Hawaii. Another Hawaiian outfit, Mulawaddy, which sells coffee to outlets including ABC, Amazon and Walmart, offered farmers $7.775 million. Neither company admitted wrongdoing. (A 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 lawyer who helped Mr. Corker bring the suit, said the best way to find real Kona is to buy directly from the farmer, whether in person or online. “I don’t trust anything you buy at the store,” he said.
Jack Begg Contributed to research.