HONOLULU — Three Kona coffee farmers have sued the world’s biggest retailers and several coffee suppliers for allegedly flooding the market with fake Kona coffee.
The farmers filed the case Wednesday in federal court in Seattle as class-action litigation intended to benefit the estimated 600 to 1,000 growers of Kona coffee on Hawaii island.
Targets of the lawsuit include retail giants Walmart, Amazon, Costco, Safeway and Kroger. Other defendants include local retailer ABC Stores and several companies in Hawaii and on the mainland that produce packaged coffee.
The litigation could lead to a long and expensive fight against some incredibly resourced companies. But the small farmers, who have long suspected that cheap coffee has been packaged as pricey beans from Kona, contend in the lawsuit that they have a powerful tool that can prove their case: scientific testing.
“The problem has always been determining what was actually in a particular bag as that information has been concealed from the Kona farmers,” the complaint said. “Modern chemistry can now provide answers to that question.”
Plaintiffs in the case tested packaged coffee for concentrations of strontium, zinc, barium, nickel, cobalt and manganese that they claim should be in Kona coffee. Results found 19 brands of either blended or 100 percent Kona coffee that lack chemical elements in concentrations that should be in Kona coffee, suggesting that no Kona coffee or only “trace” amounts are in the products, the complaint said.
Companies producing or selling those 19 brands are the targets of the lawsuit, though the complaint said more defendants could be added as testing continues.
The lawsuit claims that Kona coffee farmers produce 2.7 million pounds of green beans a year but that more than 20 million pounds of coffee labeled as Kona is sold at retail.
“That is physically impossible,” the complaint said. “Someone is lying about the contents of their ‘Kona’ products.”
Kona coffee, typically grown by small farmers and harvested by hand, commands premium prices. A 7-ounce bag can cost $25. By comparison, a larger 12-ounce bag of Colombian coffee can cost $7.
Fake Kona coffee, the lawsuit contends, enriches cheaters and depresses the price for real Kona coffee. Bogus Kona coffee also leads to consumers not appreciating the unique characteristics of real Kona coffee and thus hurts the brand and farmers, the plaintiffs said.
Besides Walmart, Amazon, Costco, Safeway, Kroger and ABC Stores, other retailers named as defendants are Cost Plus/World Market, Bed Bath &Beyond, Albertsons, Sprouts Farmers Market and the parent of T.J. Maxx and Marshalls.
Three Hawaii-based coffee producers are also defendants: Hawaiian Isles Kona Coffee, Mulvadi Corp. and Maui Coffee Co.
Mainland coffee producers named in the lawsuit are Colorado-based Boyer’s Coffee Co., Michigan-based Magnum Coffee Roastery, Indiana-based Copper Moon Coffee, Florida-based Gold Coffee Roasters and Minnesota-based Cameron’s Coffee and Distribution Co.
John Sheveland, president of Maui Coffee Co., said he was surprised by the lawsuit, especially since his company sells mainly Maui coffee. He said he pays Kona coffee farmers Kona coffee prices for the relatively little Kona coffee he sells.
“I buy Kona coffee from the Big Island, and for all I know it’s 100 percent Kona coffee,” he said. “I spend good money on it.”
Other companies accused in the lawsuit either did not immediately respond to an invitation to comment or declined to comment.
“With all legal matters, we prefer not to comment while there is a dispute out of respect for legal process,” said Rachael Barker, a spokeswoman for Cameron’s Coffee.
Cecilia Fan with Amazon said the company won’t be commenting.
Seattle- based law firm Karr Tuttle Campbell filed the lawsuit on behalf of farmers Bruce Corker of Rancho Aloha, Colehour and Melanie Bondera of Kanalani Ohana Farm and Robert and Cecelia Smith of Smithfarms.
Corker said he was advised by the law firm not to comment. Nathan Paine, an attorney representing the farmers, declined to discuss the lawsuit or issues surrounding it, such as who did the testing.
The lawsuit was filed in Washington state because Amazon and Costco are based there and other defendants do business there, including sales through Amazon.
Karr Tuttle Campbell also plans to file a class-action lawsuit based on the same claims on behalf of consumers who bought allegedly fraudulent Kona coffee.
BY THE NUMBERS
• 2.7 million pounds of Kona coffee grown annually
• 20 million-plus pounds of Kona coffee sold to consumers
— Allegation in a lawsuit filed by Kona coffee farmers