We all have to eat, and sometimes that involves going to restaurants. No one publicly lobbies against food safety, but the food and beverage industry typically fights regulations of all kinds, spending $30 million on those efforts last year, including about $4 million by the National Restaurant Association.

This industry wants the freedom to mislead in its marketing (in guidelines and labeling). It wants to maintain low wages (even below minimum wage), with no health care for its workers. In many places, it also avoids even minimal training for its employees who handle food, creating threats for outbreaks.

In the United States alone, 48 million people (roughly 15 percent of the population) get sick from foodborne illnesses each year, according to the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 128,000 of those people have to be hospitalized, and about 3,000 of them die, or roughly the equivalent-sized carnage of those who perished in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but this type of travesty happens consistently in America without much forethought or fear.

In the past few years in Hawaii, we have suffered through serious outbreaks of rat lungworm disease, hepatitis A and  E. coli. So my eyeballs bulged when reading reports from local news sources last week about recent changes to food-handling procedures in the state.

Digest this: The state now recommends for the next year, until it’s actually required by regulation, that at least one person per shift — only one! — at each restaurant must have been trained formally in food safety. I’m not sure what jolted me more, that this sort of baseline had not been required before or that this development was reported in such an understated fashion.

That significant development didn’t even see light at two of the most prominent news sources in the state, Civil Beat and Hawaii News Now. KITV had covered initial discussions about it but offered no follow-up. KHON published a short online piece, authored by “Web Staff,” starting with the incomprehensible line: “A major change for restaurants the state Department of Health has issued a new mandate.” Other news sources covered the basics, with such headlines as “Restaurants face new food-safety rules.

The real and inspiring story about what happened here, though, started in 2009, when blogger Larry Geller at Disappeared News posted a YouTube video of a rat infestation in a market in Honolulu’s Chinatown (which later was picked up by other news outlets, such as the now-merged Star-Bulletin).

Tens of thousands of people watched the rat video, and they were disgusted

Environmental Health Program Manager Peter Oshiro had been rising through the ranks of the state’s Sanitation Branch and had proposed legislation to significantly bolster an embattled food-safety inspection program. At the time, because of meager resources in the department, he said, restaurants only would be inspected once every two to three years, and the public had no easy way to find out the results of those inspections.

State government was shrinking under then-Gov. Linda Lingle, and even though Oshiro heavily lobbied food-industry stakeholders as well as legislators to get the bill passed, Lingle vetoed the plan anyway because she was concerned about raising fees on a powerful local industry from $50 to $200.

Then, the rat video was posted. Tens of thousands of people watched it, and they were disgusted. Oshiro sensed an opportunity and quickly resubmitted the bill. He said Lingle changed her position on the legislation so dramatically that she even had a signing ceremony for it.

These increased resources, paid for by restaurant fees, led to a complete reversal of Hawaii’s food-safety fortunes.

“We were woefully behind most jurisdictions (around the country),” Oshiro said. “Now, believe it or not, we are one of the nation’s leaders. No one out there is doing more than what we’re doing.”

Oshiro was promoted to program manager in 2011. Operational revenue grew through the fees, allowing more inspectors to be hired. As capacity increased, Oshiro said the program pushed for more public accountability and transparency, including the open publishing of all inspections on a website.

In 2014, a new color-coded placard system was added, with prominently displayed signs showing a restaurant’s status as either green (no more than one major violation, which must be corrected at the time of inspection), yellow (either one major uncorrected violation or at least two major violations) or red (imminent health hazard).

Hawaii also started to inspect more frequently places with more complex food-handling situations, using risk to determine frequency, with full-service restaurants being visited three times a year, fast-food places twice a year and sweet shops selling ice cream, cookies and the like once a year.

Oshiro said for the roughly 8,500 restaurants significantly handling food in Hawaii, his department has issued a total of 3,400 yellow cards during the past three years, with 99 percent of those recipients making immediate voluntary corrections.

“When they get a yellow card,” he said, “they call us and want us to come and inspect them. We want rapid compliance, and they don’t want a yellow card hanging in their window.”

The department only has pursued a hearing and additional fines four times, ultimately issuing three red cards.

In the first year of using the placards, Oshiro said, about 35 percent of all Hawaii restaurants inspected were deemed yellow. Since then, that number has declined to 18 percent, just short of the state’s goal to match the 15 percent mark common in jurisdictions in California, which has a statewide law that mandates every employee touching publicly consumed food have a food-handler’s permit. This case demonstrates how rapid improvements can be made in Hawaii, under the right leadership and vision.

Would that final 3 percent be gained by requiring all food handlers to have such formal permits? The cost is nominal, $15 for a vetted online version of the training, plus two hours to complete it.

Oshiro said requiring the training of a single manager in each establishment on every shift puts the onus on the manager to be responsible at all times for the restaurant and its employees, encouraging individual accountability.

He said some outbreaks are unavoidable, regardless of training, such as the Genki Sushi case, in which under-labeled packaged food was the problem.

“If everyone is trained, it would be better. That’s our next step,” he said. “But we try to think about what’s reasonable now, what could be done, and what makes the most sense. At this point, we want to focus on managerial control over universal certification.”

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.

    Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.