Rob Parsons

Safe to Eat?

Farm Bureau sponsors panel discussion

by Rob Parsons

June 26, 2008

Last Saturday at Maui Community College's Pa`ina Building, the Maui County Farm Bureau sponsored the "Business-2-Business Agriculture Fair," geared towards introducing buyers to Maui grown products. Nearly forty local farmers and producers attended, displaying their array of goods to potential businesses including Long's, Whole Foods, Pukalani Superette, Mana Foods, and others.

The event featured a three-person panel discussing the issue of food safety, as expanded food supply networks seem to have compounded the potential risks for widely spreading diseases associated with tainted foods.

Two years ago, an E. coli outbreak attributed to bagged spinach killed three people and sickened more than 200 in 20 states, ranging from California to Maine. More recently, tomatoes infected with salmonella have caused nearly 400 people in 30 states to fall ill. While parts of Florida and Mexico are suspected to be the most likely sources of the tomato contamination, Food and Drug Administration officials admit that it may be impossible to trace the ultimate origin.

"Think of food safety as an insurance policy for your farm", said Jim Hollyer, Ag Economist with the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. Having visited over 120 farms statewide, Hollyer described his role as that of a "food safety coach". He helps farmers and processors prepare for a third party audit that may allow them to achieve food safety certification.

Both E. coli and salmonella are bacteria associated with the intestines of animals. The spinach outbreak of 2006 was ultimately traced to wild pigs trampling through cattle manure on their way to breaking down a fence and grazing in a California spinach patch.

Panelist Geoff Haines of Pacific Produce Hydroponic Farms confirmed that fencing was his largest single cost associated with achieving certification. Haines, who grows five acres of hydroponic lettuce, said, "It's probably easier for me, because all my product is grown up off the ground. We package directly in the fields, have potable water, and never let a box touch the ground."

Haines said getting his workers involved with the system is key, with regular log sheets for what they do. Now boxes of lettuce sold to Safeway and elsewhere contain a product code that can be traced back to the individual growing bed, worker, and date harvested.

Shirley Watanabe, of Watanabe Vegetable Processing on Naalae Road said the farm audit process was "the worst thing that has happened in my life." With Valley Isle Produce encouraging them to do it, her audit took nine and a half hours. "It was awful," she said.

Watanabe, who is not currently certified, said a farm audit would be much easier than the Hazard Analysis Critical Concern Points (HACCP) examination for their processing facility. She said the Cook & Thurber food safety evaluation was 53 pages long, "and some of the questions are downright ridiculous."

As the need to increase local food production is starting to appear on people's radar screens, the cost of this type of safety assurance may appear to be yet another financial burden for small farming operations.

Claire Sullivan, buyer representative for Whole Foods, said providers selling to them would need to carry a one million dollar liability policy. Sullivan said their research indicated such coverage could be obtained for 500 dollars yearly, or 40 dollars per month.

Hollyer also noted that those shipping to Oahu would also need to consider COOL packaging (Country Of Origin Labeling), and that most growers don't know the applicable laws and are labeling products incorrectly.

While sipping his Pepsi, Hollyer noted that he spent Memorial Day in his bathroom after consuming some "unsafe" food. Still, many consumers never think to ask how long a saran-wrapped Spam musubi has been sitting out, or how long prepared bento box lunches have been basking under heat lamps.

And, who's protecting us from the ingredients in that Pepsi? That pervasive cultural icon of sugary sweetness and caffeine seems worthy of the same level of scrutiny given to our Mom & Pop farm operations. What are the long term effects of consuming caramel color, phosphoric acid, citric acid, aspartame, sodium benzoate and acesulfame potassium found in Pepsi and Pepsi One?

The adage "You are what you eat" provides words to live by. The Farm Bureau deserves kudos for helping show the benefits, and the challenges, of eating Maui grown foods.