Is Safeway Selling Real Kona Coffee?

If you’re a fan of Hawaiian Kona coffee, you probably already know that Kona coffee farmers take their name seriously. In fact, Hawaii has very strict labeling laws that require any coffee marketed as a Kona blend disclose what percentage of the coffee in the mix is actually Hawaiian-grown Kona coffee, and they can’t even use the name Kona on the label if the blend doesn’t include at least 10 percent genuine Kona coffee. Kona farmers have good reason for insisting on truth-in-labeling requirements for Kona coffee. They have a reputation and a brand to protect — and it’s an excellent reputation.

Hawaiian Kona coffee is well-known for its delicate, distinctive flavor. Kona coffee and Kona blends tend to bring a premium on the world market because of that reputation. Outside Hawaii, blends that use minuscule amounts of genuine Kona coffee can declare themselves Kona Blend coffee without disclosing the amount of Kona included or identifying the other coffee varietals used in the blend. Manufacturers and some coffee roasters, well aware of the price they can charge based on the Kona name, blend small amounts of Kona coffee with inferior beans and sell it at high prices. This practice doesn’t just dilute the Kona coffee flavor, it dilutes the Kona coffee brand and reduces its value by passing off inferior coffee as genuine Kona.

On a recent trip to California, a Paul Uster, a member of the Kona Coffee Farmers’ Alliance stopped in at a Safeway store to pick up some groceries. There, he noticed that Safeway was selling “Kona Blend” coffee under the “Safeway Select” brand, but the label said nothing about the percentage of Kona coffee included in the blend nor about what other coffee varietals were used along with the Kona. Instead, the label simply states that the blend includes “savory beans from Hawaii’s Big Island” and “100% Arabica beans,” which could apply to beans sourced from nearly any of the coffee growing regions in the world.

In addition to the lack of labeling, it also struck Uster that he had never seen the Safeway Select Kona Blend coffee on sale within Hawaii. When he returned to Hawaii, Uster contacted Safeway to ask about the coffee being sold in Safeway stores on the mainland. For the next several months, he heard little back from them regarding it. Eventually, he did manage to meet with Safeway representatives, who responded by saying they would review the labels and packaging of the Safeway Select Kona Blend coffee and make a decision about whether it was economically feasible by September 1.

After the meeting, Uster and the KCFA called for a boycott of Safeway Supermarkets as a statement to raise awareness of what they call “deceptive labeling practices” on the Safeway coffee labels. At a demonstration calling for the boycott in front of Safeway’s Kona, Hawaii store, Uster told reporters that he felt Safeway would respond better to consumers who know what is really going on.

In the meantime, the message seems to be that your Kona coffee may not have much Kona coffee in it at all. If you really want to enjoy the flavor of genuine Hawaiian Kona coffee, do your buying from a coffee roaster that is willing to label its packaging with the exact amount of Kona coffee in the bag.