Federal law will require food safety inspections on farms

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We’re raising more questions about food safety after a Salmonella outbreak on Oahu.

The Hawaii Department of Health linked the outbreak to products grown at Olakai farm in Kahuku.

It ordered the facility to stop the distribution and sale of ogo, or seaweed, and sea asparagus.

While the health department has a program to inspect restaurants, who’s inspecting the farms that grow the food you end up eating?

“In food safety systems, farms like this one, or lettuce farmers, any type of produce or fruit farmers, they typically do not require permits from DOH to operate,” said Peter Oshiro, chief of the DOH Sanitation Branch’s Food Safety Program. “They’re not required to have (basic sanitation equipment), so there’s nothing to dock them for, nothing we can fine them for, because there’s no rules or regulations that farmers must have hand sinks every so many acres, or available bathrooms with paper towels so people can ensure personal hygiene. That’s not required at any farm.”

Salmonella itself comes from animal or human waste interacting with the food product.

“If you’re eating something that’s raw, it’s very, very difficult if not impossible to wash every single bacteria off that lettuce or ogo or whatever happens to be contaminated short of cooking,” said Dr. James Ireland with the John A. Burns School of Medicine. “If you have an infected product, it’s really difficult to find the transmission.”

The Department of Health made recommendations to Olakai, such as installing sinks for hand washing and available bathrooms with paper towels, but it’s up to the farm to make changes.

KHON2 learned Hawaii farms can get their produce certified for safety. At this point, it’s voluntary.

But a federal law is scheduled to take effect by the end of the year that would force many farms to get regularly inspected for food safety.

Dean Okimoto of Nalo Farms has 16 acres of land in Waimanalo. He grows fruits, vegetables and herbs.

Okimoto says the Salmonella outbreak is one more reason for consumers to want more assurance that the food they buy is safe to eat. The next step is monitoring produce from the farms.

“Is there someone who’s actually monitoring the safety of that product?” KHON2 asked.

“No. We can get what’s called GAP, which is Good Agricultural Practices, certified which I would suggest all farms do,” said Okimoto.

Hawaii farms can get certified through the Hawaii Department of Agriculture or a private company. That certification includes getting irrigation water tested, using only approved fertilizers, and monitoring the use of pesticides.

“We need to record when we’re applying all these things, how much we’re applying. Everything is documented,” said Okimoto.

Other protocols include wearing gloves when handling produce, and using refrigerated trucks to deliver them at the proper temperature. Workers are also required remove their outerwear, like jackets and boots, when they go from the refrigerated storage container to the bathroom. Farms are audited every year to make sure they follow these guidelines.

KHON2 has learned that only about five percent of all the farms in Hawaii are actually food-safety certified. The main reason: it’s expensive.

But at the end of the year, the federal government plans to implement what’s known as the Food Safety Modernization Act, and that would mean inspections by the state health department.

“We’re going to go out to farms and start inspecting them and at least start making sure that they have minimum requirements — hand sinks, bathrooms with clean running water. These are all things that are really critical in stopping food illnesses,” said Oshiro.

Okimoto says it means food costs will likely go up, but it’s necessary to make the public feel safe.

We spoke with the owner of Olakai Friday. He says he was certified by the state, but he had to move some equipment around so he is no longer certified.

He said he plans to go through the process again, but first he has to finish the protocols required by the health department.

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