The State of Aloha

Something caught my eye at the grocery store the other day. A cardboard stand obstructed part of the aisle with a large picture of smiling kids and perfectly tanned adults who were having a blast on a canoe, and then there were the words in bold letters: “AS LOCAL AS YOU ARE.” They were selling macadamia nuts.

I didn’t get it. Are mac nuts local? Definitely shoyu or rock salt. But mac nuts? Do we buy macadamia nuts just to have around the house? And I’m not talking about when you have to go on a trip to the Mainland and bring stuff from Hawaii for cousins and friends. Aren’t macadamia nuts for tourists?

“Local” products are different from the Hawaii products. When I was growing up, local products were usually made and advertised for locals. Chow fun noodles with the hula girl on it, beautifully white rock salt with the Hawaiian crest on it, and the Malolo syrup with the crown from the Statue of Liberty on it were there to name a few.

Then there are what I call the Hawaii products. Things that are Hawaiian, but not quite local. There are a few products, like mac nuts, that have been around forever, like coffee and, how can we forget, sugar. Nowadays, however, there are many, many more Hawaii-geared products.

Most Hawaii-based foods are small-time operations in comparison to the producers on the Mainland. But our homegrown companies have a real marketing advantage. They get to say that it’s made right here in Hawaii.

Folks — both locals and visitors — really seem to like that. In fact, it is so valuable that the government has stepped in to protect vendors and producers from interlopers who try to market Mainland products as the genuine Hawaiian article.

It is against the law to “keep, offer, display or expose for sale” merchandise labeled “made in Hawaii” or otherwise misrepresent the origin of the item as being from any place in the state. You also can’t use the phrase “made in Hawaii” in advertising or media for a craft that is not manufactured, assembled or produced in Hawaii. To earn the label, you need at least 51 percent of the product actually made, assembled or produced in the state.

The state’s Department of Agriculture even has a nice-looking label certifying that the product is “Made in Hawaii with Aloha.” To get it, you have to apply with a sworn statement that the product meets the criteria of the law.

Products violating this law can be fined $2,000 a day, every day until the situation is remedied. And, of course, this being America, you can also get sued.

The Kona Brewing Co. is in a lot of ways a success for a local business. It is distributed around the world (I was proud to see that you could buy a bottle of their pale ale in London). Its headquarters are in Kailua-Kona, next to the old airport soccer fields.

But where exactly is it made? Does it have the “Made in Hawaii” logo on it next to the volcanoes, canoes and hibiscus flowers? The answer depends where you are. Sure, some are brewed in the islands, but it’s also brewed elsewhere and distributed nearby.

That did not sit well for two shoppers in California. They sued the Craft Beer Alliance, the company that owns Kona Brewing Co., because they were misled into thinking the beers they bought were made in Hawaii. The suit seeks others to join in a class action.

The lawsuit caused quite a splash. It was filed in federal court in Northern California, a court that handles so many lawsuits related to the food industry it has earned the moniker the “Food Court.”

Brewing companies aren’t the only ones to sell Hawaii. Go to the store and you’ll see Maui Onion Chips sold by Lay’s. My personal favorite is the “Luau Barbeque Rings.” They look like Funyuns, but instead depict hula dancers and a shirtless Hawaiian man blowing a conch shell. The barbeque rings are sold by a Mainland company.

Back in 2011, the general manager of the onion ring producer, Jeff Leichleiter, was candid. “We know ‘Luau Barbeque Rings’ don’t make sense, but 98 percent of the country doesn’t know.” He added that “the Hawaii image is a powerful brand — and it’s done well for us.”

But is it against our brand protection law? Some say no. Lack of funding to enforce the law and products made out of the state have proven to be too much for the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

So to be sure it’s from here, check the label. Ignore the hula dancers and the palm trees. You can have luau onion rings from Texas and brews made with aloha but brewed in New Jersey.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”