Hawaii is famous for its giant surf, tropical climate and laidback culture. Locals are proud of their home and welcome tourists, but they do take exception when non-natives use the culture for financial gain. This carries over to intellectual property issues including lawsuits that have involved Hawaiian beer brewed on the mainland, a poke chain out of Chicago with the trademarked name “Aloha” and even Hawaiian potato chips manufactured on the mainland.
The case of the counterfeit coffee bean
The latest example is three coffee farmers in the Kona region of Hawaii’s Big Island taking exception to outsiders using the Kona name and putting it on coffee from elsewhere. They filed a federal case in Seattle as a class action litigation for the 600 to 1,000 farmers in the Kona region. The suit accuses Amazon, Walmart and other retailers, as well as several coffee suppliers for flooding the market with counterfeit Kona coffee not grown in the region – three of the defendants are even Hawaiian growers from other parts of the state.
The farmers base this accusation on the fact that an estimated 20 million pounds of Kona coffee are sold annually, but the farmers produce about 2.7 million pounds. Kona coffee is a premium brand that usually fetches well upwards of $50 a pound.
According to a news article in the West Hawaii News, it is easy to analyze the coffee beans to determine if they were grown in Kona soil. Not only does it not have the same qualities of taste, but there is also a chemical make-up in the bean that is identifiable. The brands will often mix some Kona coffee beans with other lesser varieties.
Lost profit and brand dissolution
The farmers are seeking damages for lost profits and brand dissolution. They also want an injunction against using the Kona name. The latter issue may be the hardest to prove because U.S. law regulating food producers are laxer than in Europe. There is the option, however, for using an official certification mark that the beans were grown in Kona soil.
The farmers currently do not have such a registration, but a knowledgeable intellectual property attorney can provide legal assistance to the farmers or others who feel that their product and business is undercut or otherwise affected by lesser products.