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Opinion: Ag inspections should be priority

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By Ken Love

A box was delivered to a Kona grocery last week and I got to thinking …

It’s hard to accept that some in our state have not learned enough to understand that importing ginger from China, especially in misleading boxes, is detrimental to consumers, growers and the overall health of the community. The same can be said with taro and other crops that Hawaiian growers continually struggle to sell at equitable prices. The companies that import and distribute this travesty, locally, should be ashamed of themselves.

What’s a store to do?

A grocery store in a competitive environment like Kona where there are four major stores within 20 minutes of each other causes a fight for survival. No matter how dedicated they are to the buy local premise, they still have to have bananas, ginger and taro to sell.

Sadly, many don’t go out of their way to obtain locally grown items and prefer to simply buy from wholesalers who are the ones responsible for the imports. Sometimes when grocery store produce managers are shown locally grown alternatives, they will buy them.

These wholesalers are the ones who need to be called on the carpet and must pay the price for pushing potentially dangerous produce items on our community.

There are many documented cases in Japan and some in Korea where importation of Chinese grown produce has been forbidden because of excessive pesticide residue and other dangerous chemicals coating seemingly safe food items.

This testing was done by the receiving countries. Something we are supposed to do much more of. The last time I checked the government officially said they inspected 10 percent of the imports. Other information indicates it might be closer to 3 percent, if that.

Whoever the next governor is, there must be a new much much stronger agriculture department. Or it should/could be decentralized for each island and two in the case of the Big Island.

The bottom line being that if they need money, they must charge these importers an inspection fee. It’s not something that should become a political football; it simply must be done.

Where has the coffee borer come from? How did the little fire ants and the coqui get here? Lack of agriculture inspection is the answer. How did lack of inspection develop in Hawaii?

The simplistic answer would be because of the old boy network in place. This created other problems where inspectors must sign non–disclosure agreements that are above the whistle blower protection laws. The inspectors, many of who have been fired by the – thankfully soon ending -state administration, have told off the record horror stories for years.

With luck, some will come forward and be able to tell firsthand what they experienced with our flawed state agriculture inspections.

Bob Dylan once said, “money doesn’t talk, it swears.” These wholesalers who continue to import ginger and taro from China, papaya from Mexico, banana from Ecuador and of course avocados from California, Chile, Mexico and a few other countries should be forced to pay for these inspections before the rest of what we grow here is destroyed by the greed of a few.

The country of origin labeling laws known as COOL, is useless when we as growers don’t brand. The Chinese ginger from the box pictured is now being sold in a market mixed with two boxes of ginger from Hilo. A few can tell the difference by appearance. By taste it is easy to tell. The problem is that a consumer does not look at the signs; they look at the root.

The sign says U.S. and China, which conforms to COOL. As growers we must put Hawaii stickers on our product. Consumers looking at ginger, taro and avocados do look at the stickers. Research shows they will buy locally grown produce first. We, and the stores, have to make sure they know its local.

Spend some time in the produce section next time you shop – and ask questions.

When you reach for a green bell pepper, look at the COOL sign. If it only says one location, it’s not true. Bell peppers are brought in from five countries and I doubt one store can carry just one country’s pepper. The system just does not work that way.

The same system we all must work to change.

(Kona resident Ken Love, a specialist in tropical fruit horticulture and market development. Love works on local sustainability issues for Hawaii farmers, value-added product development and farmer-chef relations. Contact Love at kenlove@kona.net )

4 Responses to “Opinion: Ag inspections should be priority”

  1. judy schuman says:

    Well put, Ken. As consumers we should have a movement for us consumers to leave a message with store managers that we will buy from farmers’ markets instead. It might be a little out of the way, but it will pay off in fresher produce and produce that is not covered with pesticides. Wholesalers should be pressured to buy locally. If markets sell less, they will buy less from wholesalers.

  2. Chris says:

    Agreed!

    How can we claim to wish for food self-sustainability and have campaigns about “Eat Fresh” and “Buy Local” when we have NO protections (ie inspections) from foreign contaminants and dangers? As it has been reiterated many times in the past: it is not a matter of ‘if’, but ‘when’ another outbreak will happen, in our current situation. Do we want to wait for a major crippling event to occur before change is sought?

    I agree with Judy, use supply and demand to convince stores to buy local. I’ve seen many restaurants begin to buy local due to customer demand.

  3. Mauka says:

    Just a thought, just because its “local” doesn’t mean it hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides. Buy local, certified organic.

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