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Hawaii's Lowered Coffee Certification Standards and the Issue of Fair Trade

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The grading and sale of Hawaiian coffee under lowered certification standards since 2014 has left many coffee connoisseurs questioning the evenhandedness of such a practice in a market made up of consumers who increasingly seek fair trade product.  Rules allowing as little as 10-percent Hawaiian-origin beans in coffee sold as "Kona" further muddy the issue of whether or not Hawaiian joe is in line with the spirit of fair trade.  If your interests include the only coffee growing region in the United States or the fair trade issue more broadly, read on.

"Why lower standards?," you ask.  Let us start with some background.  

The core of Hawaii's coffee industry consists of 900 farms spread across more than eight thousand acres. Most of the cherry is grown on the island of Hawaii, also known as the Big Island, from where the famous Kona and Kau varietals hail. Perhaps the next best known type, Kauai, carries the name of the island on which it grows.  Smaller amounts of the breakfast staple are grown on Maui.

Hawaii state certifiers categorize coffee based on the number of defective beans per 300 gram (roughly 1500-bean) sample.  The Extra Fancy grade, for example, may contain eight bad beans, whereas Fancy can only have 12 and no more than 18 can appear in No. 1.  Prime grades--determined by their percentage of substandard beans--include Hawaii Prime, Hawaii Natural Prime, and Hawaii Mixed Natural Prime; prior to 2014, these top sorts could only contain 15-percent faulty beans.  

In response to increasing crop damage by the infamous Coffee Borer Beetle, and a need to shore up competitiveness of its top export in the international market, Hawaii decided in 2014 to lower the grading standards of its premium coffees to allow for up to 20-percent junk beans.  In January 2017, the Department of Agriculture extended regulations permitting the lower standard while public hearings allow for debate on possibly extending the lower bar for three more years.

"So...what defines a bad bean?"  Good question.  Defective beans are those exhibiting three or more pinholes caused by insect damage, most often inflicted by beetles, which have plagued the industry on the Big Island, led to increased pesticide use on product over the past several years, and--most recently--spread to the island of Maui.  Beans are sometimes downgraded by other damage as well.

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