Eugene’s only kava bar stopped serving kava for about a week in July after a misunderstanding between local and state health authorities about what’s a food and what’s an additive.
The LovaKava Bar and Restaurant downtown serves a selection of teas from kava root, Piper methysticum, said by users to infuse a sense of calm.
“My staff at the kava bar got a phone call from Lane County Environmental Health (LCEH) telling us and warning us that we had to immediately stop serving kava,” says LovaKava owner John Sholar. “Quite frankly, that made no sense to me at all.”
Sholar says a county health inspector told him that LCEH was following guidelines from the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) on the legalities of serving kava. He closed the restaurant around July 10, he says, and sent all 12 part-time and full-time employees home.
LovaKava then opened again for a few days but refrained from serving kava.
“My whole restaurant was shut down for a week,” Sholar says. “It was pretty bad. We really took a hit. After that, we had to shut down all these other kava products that I carry in-house and prepare for people.”
He adds in an email, “This action would have affected every kava bar in the U.S.”
After receiving a letter from Sholar’s attorney, OHA contacted the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in mid-July. FDA decided kava tea is a food and not an additive.
“My attorney proved to them it isn’t a food additive, but it’s actually been a food that’s been consumed for 4,000 years. Adding a food to water does not change the constitution of the food. The water is a delivery system,” Sholar says.
OHA reversed its decision within days of receiving the letter from Sholar’s attorney. “The FDA came back and said this is OK,” says Brett Sherry, OHA program manager with the Food, Pool and Lodging Program.
Lane County spokesperson Devon Ashbridge says LCEH told Sholar around July 10 that he couldn’t serve kava as an additive to food. In an email to EW, Ashbridge writes:
“In June, Lane County Environmental Health (LCEH) received an update from Oregon Health Authority (OHA) stating that kava was not on the Food & Drug Administration’s list of approved additives — meaning that it could not be added to food prepared and served at a restaurant, but could be sold as a dietary supplement. LCEH was aware of one restaurant using kava and, after receiving the above notification from OHA, as a courtesy called the restaurant.”
Sholar says the daily routine at LovaKava Bar downtown is back to normal. His team of employees quickly returned to serving kava tea, which comes in different strains like Vanuatu (billed as “relaxing, pain-relieving and heavy on the body”).
“We’re just a little kava bar, trying to do our little thing,” he says.