Kona coffee farmers losing patience with Safeway

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

with Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—We are often told we live in an age of situational ethics. Implicit in that remark is the idea that once ethics were simple, straightforward, and easily defined: right and wrong, illegal and legal.

In part, that argument could be used to defend Safeway’s practice of selling Kona blend coffee. In Hawaii, the coffee comes in State-law-compliant packaging that lists the requisite 10 percent of actual Kona coffee. On the “mainland,” however, the content is nonspecific with a generic Kona blend label. The practice doesn’t wash with the Kona Coffee Farmers Association, even though the store’s “mainland” practice is not violating any law.

Last week, the Association called for a boycott of Safeway citing lack of response from the grocery store to a complaint letter sent in April by former Hawaii senator Russell Kokubun, now Chair of the Department of Agriculture. According to Safeway, the letter simply went south. Susan Houghton, the store’s public affairs director, publically apologized on Hawaii Public Radio’s The Conversation on Tuesday.

“We apologize to the Kona Coffee Farmers for having the letter fall through the cracks,” Houghton says, “it was absolutely unacceptable, as well as to the Department of Agriculture chair. We don’t know what happened to it. As soon as our division office, which operates the 19 stores in Hawaii, became aware of the situation, we immediately contacted Russell and the Kona Coffee Farmers. It turned out that one of their representatives was planning to be in California for another meeting and so we met with him last week.”

The “him” she refers to is Paul Uster, board member of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association. But according to Uster, the snub didn’t originate with Kokubun’s letter. It began months earlier when the Association’s then-president Bruce Corker wrote his own letter asking for label parity in the interest of good corporate relations. Safeway acknowledged the January letter by telling Corker it needed to be redirected to the legal department and that the store would respond. When an answer failed to materialize, Uster asked Kokubun to intercede because “we thought they were stonewalling us, or frankly, just blowing us off.”

At the meeting on August 2 at Safeway’s Pleasanton, California, headquarters, Uster agrees that the group who met with him was conciliatory. The group included the category manager of the coffee, juice and tea team, the consumer (house label) brands manager, and Houghton, who told him they would need “a week or so” to research three issues: How the company might increase the percentage of Kona coffee in its blend sold out of Hawaii; a possible redesign of the “mainland” packaging and how the coffee is represented, i.e. where the beans come from, Central or South America or Hawaii; and how Safeway might support the Kona Coffee Farmers better, possibly adding more blends to their other stores.

There are over 1,700 Safeway stores in California, Hawaii, and Washington, DC. In Hawaii, the store carries eight Kona coffee products. Currently Houghton says she doesn’t know what percentage of Kona coffee is in the “mainland” blend, a fact Uster calls unbelievable. “It could be far less than 10 percent. It could be a bean.” When he pressed for a date by which the Association could expect an answer, Houghton morphed the deadline to a month. Uster says he is concerned this means the store is still not taking the farmers’ concerns seriously enough.

“Kona is an appellation,” Uster says. “When the flavor profile and quality of a product are degraded in blends, it makes it harder for small farmers to make a living. But this is not just about making a living. It’s about truth in labeling and consumer expectations.”

As the Kona Coffee Farmers Association waits to see whether the integrity of their product will be made consistent on the mainland as in Hawaii, it is still asking family, friends, and supporters on the continental United States to boycott Safeway and let the store know why.  Safeway employees in Hawaii cannot do anything, Uster says.

Safeway’s answer to the group is due September. The Kona Coffee Farmers Association plans to picket the Kona Safeway store from 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Thursday, August 11.

The interview with Susan Houghton is on The Conversation archive at www.hawaiipublicradio.org. To reach Beth-Ann Kozlovich, email her at [email protected]

CORRECTION on 8/11/11 at 2:34 p.m.: The Kona Coffee Farmers Association, after its first mention, was incorrectly referred to as the “Kona Coffee Growers Association.” The Kona Coffee Farmers Association is leading the boycott against Safeway. Their website is http://www.konacoffeefarmers.org/.