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Kona Coffee Growers File Class-Action Suit Against Safeway

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HONOLULU -- A spat involving Safeway and Hawaii coffee growers is still brewing, even after the supermarket giant agreed to change labeling on its Kona blend coffee.

A $5 million class-action lawsuit was filed in federal court in Northern California claiming Safeway profited off the reputation of Kona coffee while selling an inferior product with very little Hawaii-grown coffee.

The lawsuit was filed Aug. 30, a day before Safeway's letter informing the Kona Coffee Farmers Association the company would change its packaging to reflect the percentage of Kona it contains. The farmers had called for a boycott of Safeway's 1,700 stores nationwide after a farmer saw the Kona blend for sale in a California store.

In an effort to protect a world-famous Hawaii product, the state's Board of Agriculture Chairman Russell Kokubun sent a letter to Safeway officials asking them to comply with a law here requiring labels to specify the percentage of Hawaii-grown coffee included in the blend. The law requires those blends have at least 10 percent Hawaii-grown coffee. But because Safeway's Kona blend isn't sold in any of the 19 Hawaii locations, Kokubun could only ask for voluntary compliance.

The farmers' battle inspired the class-action lawsuit, said Janet Lindner Spielberg, a Los Angeles attorney representing the plaintiffs.

"It affects their livelihoods and how their product is viewed in the world," she said in a phone interview with The Associated Press on Thursday.

Coffee drinker Chanee Thurston, of Benicia, Calif., is the only plaintiff named in the lawsuit, which is also on behalf of consumers who purchased the Safeway Select Kona Blend since Aug. 30, 2007. According to the complaint, Thurston bought the coffee believing it "was comprised largely or entirely of high quality coffee beans from the Kona region of Hawaii and relied on these representations in making her purchases."

She paid more money for the Kona blend than she would have for other similar coffee products made up of a large amount of non-Kona beans.

"They're really using the reputation of Kona beans. They're using it to sell something that's essentially an inferior product," Spielberg said.

A Safeway spokeswoman said Thursday the company doesn't comment on pending litigation.

Hawaii is the only place in the United States where coffee is grown. Coffee aficionados pay a premium for coffee grown in farms in the Kona district, known for its rich volcanic soil and tropical climate.

Spielberg said the lawsuit won't be dropped despite Safeway agreeing to change the label.

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