Those in the coffee world are serious about their beans—so serious, in fact, sometimes the law needs to become involved.
Hundreds of farmers in the Kona region of Hawaii, which is known for making some of the most expensive coffee in the world, recently won more than $41 million in settlements from companies that were accused of using the “Kona” name in a misleading way, The New York Times reported on Thursday. Some of the companies didn’t admit wrongdoing, but their coffee was found to be elementally different from coffee produced in the Kona region.
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“There are probably many, many more marketers of coffee who have misused geographic names in marketing, and this will be a disincentive,” Bruce Corker, the owner of Kona’s Rancho Aloha coffee farm, told the Times.
Back in 2019, Corker filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Kona farmers against more than 20 companies he suspected of using false advertising to sell their coffee, The New York Times wrote. He was aided by a chemical analysis run by the biologist James Ehleringer, who found that Kona coffee beans had particular element ratios that stayed constant even after being roasted. Testing more than 150 samples from Kona farms, along with those from coffees around the world, he was able to tell Kona samples from non-Kona samples.
Some of the defendants in the case fought back against Ehleringer’s testing, but the settlements occurred before the courts could decide on that point. The largest, from the company MNS, totals $12 million; Mulvadi, a Hawaiian company that sells to stores like Amazon and Walmart, coughed up $7.8 million. (Neither admitted wrongdoing, and a lawyer representing MNS declined to comment to the Times. Lawyers for Mulvadi and other defendants didn’t respond to the newspaper’s requests for comment.)
In response to the lawsuit, a few companies have started including the percentage of Kona beans in their products. But even then, some people are still skeptical about buying beans indirectly: Dexter Washburn, a retired Kona farmer and former lawyer who assisted Corker with the case, said to buy from farmers, either in person or online. “I don’t trust anything you buy in the store,” he told The New York Times.
Hopefully, the lawsuit means that some store labels will be at least slightly more accurate, though.
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