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Coffee growers seek to protect the Kona name

The laidback lifestyle in Hawaii makes it a wonderful place to visit. However, like other unique places on the planet, local residents and business take great care in protecting what makes the place special, especially when they see non-natives using the culture or names for financial gain. Hawaiians have moved to take action against a Hawaiian beer brewed on the mainland, a Chicago-based poke chain with the trademarked name of “Aloha,” and Hawaiian potato chips made on the mainland.

Now three coffee farmers located in the Kona region of the so-called “Big Island” are taking steps to protect the world-famous coffee beans produced there. They have filed a federal suit against suppliers and retailers (such as Walmart, Amazon, CostCo, and others) who claim to sell premium Kona coffee beans, which typically sell for well over $50 a pound, and allege that the supplier and retailers know that the coffee was not produced in Kona.

Claims of a counterfeit bean

The suit was filed on behalf of “the Kona coffee farmers who grow the entire worldwide supply of authentic Kona coffee.” The region’s 600-1000 farms, where the bean is picked by hand, produce about 2.7 million pounds of Kona coffee per year. The farmers believe that non-Kona based businesses (including some from other parts of Hawaii) are selling an estimated 17 million pounds of counterfeit coffee with the Kona name on it.

According to the West Hawaii News, it is easy to detect non-Kona coffee because it does not have the same chemical make up (or quality of taste) as coffee grown in Kona. The lawsuit lists 19 brands of coffee labeled as Kona that were blended with other cheaper beans or did not include any beans grown in the region.

Claims of lost profit and brand dissolution

In the civil suit filed in Seattle federal court, the Kona farmers are seeking compensation for lost profits and brand dissolution, as well as an injunction. While food labeling is more closely regulated in Europe, U.S. law says that food producers do not need to hold to strict guidelines. Groups can, however, use a certification mark if a product meets certain standards, such as geography, but the Kona farmers do not currently have such a registration.

A knowledgeable intellectual property attorney can provide guidance for you and your business on these issues.

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