SAN FRANCISCO — Hills Bros., the nation's third-largest coffee seller, said Friday that it will suspend for 30 days the signing of contracts to buy coffee from El Salvador, giving momentum to an economic boycott of that war-torn country.
The company announced that it will refrain from new purchase commitments in El Salvador "while it studies the political situation" there, a reference to the civil war in which rebels are fighting to overthrow the U.S.-backed government, which is accused of atrocities against clergy and other civilians.
In exchange for the suspension, a private activist group called Neighbor to Neighbor has freed Hills Bros. Coffee Inc. brands from its consumer boycott. In addition to its namesake brand, San Francisco-based Hills Bros. also sells MJB, Chase & Sanborn and Sark's Supreme coffees.
Neighbor to Neighbor spokesman Glen Schneider said the retail boycott will continue against other brands suspected of using inexpensive Salvadoran beans, including Folgers, the country's best-selling brand, and No. 2 Maxwell House, as well as Nescafe, Sanka and Taster's Choice.
He said the Hills Bros. decision is a "very important first step" in putting pressure on other brands to stop using coffee from El Salvador.
Neighbor to Neighbor launched its boycott Nov. 21 with endorsements from a number of unions, liberal clergy and elected officials.
Salvadoran coffee is being boycotted because it is a vital source of income for the government of that Central American nation. About 60% of El Salvador's coffee, worth $400 million, is shipped to the United States.
Schneider said coffee earnings help finance the Salvadoran military, which is linked to death squads that have been blamed for killing suspected rebels, their families and sympathizers.
Hills Bros. spokeswoman Laurie Chase said the company suspended new coffee contracts "in response to the deep concern expressed over the past several weeks by consumers about the continuing conflict in El Salvador."
Other major coffee companies, including Procter & Gamble, General Foods and Nestle, earlier stopped shipping Salvadoran coffee through West Coast ports when union dockworkers threatened to refuse to handle it.
George Boecklin, president of the National Coffee Assn. in New York, said: "Until consumers become aware of (the boycott) . . . I don't think it will have any impact."