Truth in Labeling

May 31, 2009


      This content first appeared as a response letter to Hawai‘i State senators concerning a proposed bill (HB 931) to increase the blend content minimum of a Hawaiian blend from 10% to  51%.  The bill also stipulated that the origins of the coffees in the blend must be enumerated and labeled on the bag.  The letter has been modified here to accommodate new thoughts and opinions.


Andrew Hetzel, an industry-respected, Hawai‘i-based coffee consultant, regularly points out that coffee should be known for its taste above all else (read some of his thoughts here).  I wholeheartedly agree with this.  As the specialty coffee industry matures, so does the discernment of consumers.  People are beginning to care more for a coffee because of its taste than where it is from.  If companies produce a product that people like, the coffee's contents will then become important to the consumer.  Knowledge empowers people.  In this case, the knowledge is about quality.  If we are serious about protecting any coffee in Hawai‘i, we must first ensure that we are protecting something that is worth protecting.  We first need to ensure all coffees with any Hawai‘i name are of high quality.



We live in a society infused with creativity and freedom of choice.  It is a coffee roaster's right to blend coffee however they choose.  Any person serious about coffee will argue ardently about the joy and importance of blending.  In fact, a mark of a talented roaster is their skill in blending coffees.  In my opinion, we should not have a law that dictates how a blender can do his/her job.  The knowledgeable consumer can decide whether or not that coffee is something they want to drink.



As the Kona Kai scandal has proven, crafty and unscrupulous persons can cause damage to our coffee industry.  Hence, I agree we need some laws to help protect our honest members of the industry.  I consider that the Truth in Labeling law was a step in the right direction.  Through paper trails, someone can usually determine if a coffee does in fact have X% of the labeled coffee within the bag. 



However, as the most vocal proponents of an increased blend percentage say, a coffee that is 10% Kona isn't really Kona.  The point of putting the Kona coffee in the bag really isn't to impact the flavor of the coffee.  Rather, it is to help sell the bag of coffee.  Otherwise, why would they label the coffee with the smallest component of the blend!?  While I find this to be a bit unethical, I certainly strongly believe that any roaster should be permitted to do so.

The compromise, I agree, has already been discovered.  If we accept that consumers are the arbiters of quality, then giving them the knowledge they need is enough.  Thus, HB 931's provision to include all the coffees in a blend on the bag is an excellent idea.  The FDA requires the listing of ingredients in all processed foods.  Why not do that with coffee? 



All the origins contained in a bag should be listed, at the very least, in decreasing order of percentage (I recognize that the term "origin" is ambiguous, but it is relatively simple to standardize its use).  If any percentage is included on the bag (say, of a Hawaiian coffee) then all percentages should be listed.  This eliminates the confusion of the term "blend" because it plainly shows there is more than one coffee origin in the bag.  In one simple statement, it completely empowers the consumer and allows them to realize that perhaps the bag they're holding is cheap because very little of it is actually Kona.



Roasters will likely complain that such information will be giving away trade secrets.  I disagree with this statement.  If you give the exact same coffee to 10 roasters, you'll end up with 1 coffee tasting 10 different ways.  In truth, it would be very difficult for any two roasters to even have the same blend.  The origin "Brazil" is a huge place (the largest producer of coffee on the planet, in fact).  Two roasters buying coffee from Brazil or even a region of Brazil are likely going to be buying coffees that are inherently different.  Hence, any roaster afraid of his/her trade secrets being given away has only a little leg to stand on.



Large volume roasters/blenders work on a different business scale than smaller operations.  Their success is often based on economies-of-scale savings and the sale of large quantities of coffee.  They are constantly shifting the contents of their blends depending on price and availability.  With every content shift, they would need a new label for their bags.  This cost is likely to be prohibitive to a successful large operation.  A compromise to this complication is to require the enumeration and labeling of the Hawaiian coffee and a general labeling for the rest of the contents.  For example, a 10% Kona blend could say “Contains 10% Kona Coffee and 90% International Coffees.”  While this option still capitalizes on the Kona name, at least it clarifies the label for consumers.  Potentially, the requirement for the label could be dependent upon the size of the company.



I advocate putting the onus on consumers by giving them the power of information.  It is up to the farmers, roasters, retailers, and storytellers (consultants and media) to help those consumers use that knowledge.  While a new law to dictate a minimum percentage of coffee in a bag is unnecessary, a requirement to list the content in the blend is useful.  After all, one assumes a roaster is proud of their blend and not just a single coffee within it.



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