KAILUA-KONA — What’s in a name? When it comes to their prized Sharwil variety, Hawaii Island avocado farmers say, quite a lot.
That’s why the Hawaii Avocado Association (HAA) is up in arms about what members have described as chronic mislabeling of Sharwil avocados at the West Hawaii Safeway located off Henry Street.
“It denigrates the grade and the variety,” said John App, president of HAA. “It hurts us because people taste these things and they’re not as good, and they don’t have a good feeling about our avocado.”
Hawaii Island began shipping Sharwils back to the mainland in earnest this season for the first time in 25 years. Only the Sharwil variety has been cleared to send to more than 30 U.S. states, so packing plant expansion and farmer participation are expected to trend upward for the next several years, potentially creating a boon for local avocado farmers.
When visitors from the mainland shop at local Hawaii grocery stores, see the Sharwil brand and buy up a handful of them, the culinary experience is an important marketing tool.
Sharwils have a distinct flavor, a higher oil content, a smaller seed and they last longer, App explained. In other words, they’re superior to most other varieties. So when a tourist consumes an inferior variety of avocado he or she believes to be a Sharwil, that hurts Hawaii’s burgeoning avocado export market.
Safeway’s corporate communications office acknowledged incorrect labeling practices at the Kailua-Kona location in an email Friday.
“When this came to our attention at the Kona Safeway, we immediately researched further and found the avocados were from a local distributor but mislabeled as Sharwil due to a clerical error,” wrote Wendy Gutshall, director of public and government affairs at Safeway. “The store took prompt corrective action to change the display sign and create a new tag to address the issue.”
A follow-up email asking when Safeway became aware of the issue and when the labels were changed was not answered by press time Friday. No incorrect labeling was observed by a West Hawaii Today reporter in the store’s produce section on Thursday afternoon.
However, App sent in a photo from Feb. 23 of avocados mislabeled as Sharwils, the most recent photographic evidence of false advertising. Two other photos submitted by Ken Love, president of Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers, were snapped in early-mid February.
Love said the mislabeling has persisted for months.
“I’ve seen this almost every Friday I walk in there, so maybe twice a month for five or six months,” Love wrote in an email to WHT Friday. “Sometimes they were actually Sharwils, but mostly they are some other type of junk. I’ve gotten comments from people working in the produce department from ‘I’ll tell them’ to ‘We can’t do anything about it.’”
“No one has ever done anything about it,” he continued.
Another avocado farmer who asked to remain anonymous said he remembered seeing avocados mislabeled as Sharwils in Safeway’s produce section as far back as least season, roughly one year ago.
A reporter did observe in Safeway Thursday a bin labeled simply “local avocados.” Members of HAA say they have no issue with that labeling strategy as long as the produce is actually purchased locally, which based on their knowledge and comments by Safeway, it is.
Neither App nor Love has observed mislabeled avocados at any other grocery store in West Hawaii.