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The Los Angeles Times reports that three Hawaiian farmers are suing Amazon, Costco, Walmart and 18 other companies, accusing them of selling bogus Kona coffee.

The suit is seeking “unspecified damages, a halt to sales and a national advertising campaign setting the record straight, hope to qualify the case as a class action representing all Kona growers.

“Challenging the retailers to disclose where they get their Kona coffee, the lawsuit claims that while 2.7 million pounds of authentic Kona coffee beans are grown each year, more than 20 million pounds labeled ‘Kona’ are sold at retail.”

It isn’t just that the math doesn’t seem to add up in terms of how much Kona coffee is sold. The farmers also say it is chemistry; according to the story, “The growers’ attorneys said in the suit that some of the tested samples labeled as blends might contain Kona, but so little as to be deceptive. Hawaii requires that Kona blends contain at least 10% of the real stuff, but the law only covers sales within the state.

“The findings are not peer-reviewed and the lawsuit does not identify the scientists, whom attorneys for the growers declined to make available for interviews.”
KC's View:
I’m fascinated by this, for a number of reasons.

First, the courts have to buy into the farmers’ definition of how math and science add up to counterfeit coffee. It sounds cut and dried, but I would imagine that there will be lawyers and scientists coming out of the woodwork to challenge it.

I have to be honest - the idea that a product identified and sold as Kona coffee only has to be on-tenth Kona coffee strikes me as a pretty crappy approach to regulation. I wonder how many people shelling out money for Kona coffee know about this regulatory sleight of hand. I’d bet not many.

It’ll also be interesting to see if the courts hold the retailers responsible for selling counterfeit Kona, or if the retailers will be able to get away with arguing that it isn’t their fault, that they’re just selling products manufactured by others, and that those are the culprits in this case. There’s a part of that that buys that, but I also think that at some point retailers have to take responsibility for what they sell. That also seems to be the way the courts are trending, as in a recent case in which Amazon was held responsible for the safety of a product sold on its Marketplace site.

This case has the potential for challenging a number of assumptions that, in my view, deserve to be challenged. Somebody has to stand up for the consumer, and that probably has to be the courts.