A kitchen that has been delivering meals across three islands during the COVID-19 pandemic has been ordered to cease its operation by the Department of Health because of food safety concerns.

Malama Meals, which partners with Aloha Venues and the city of Honolulu, has delivered more than 340,000 meals to kupuna and other people in need on Oahu, Kauai and Molokai.

At an inspection on Friday in response to a complaint, DOH inspectors found that Malama Meals food handlers were “not monitoring cooking temperatures of poultry, not properly washing their hands,” according to a press release from the health department.

Malama Meals improperly labeled food with date and time stamps for “ready-to-eat foods being held at room temperature,” and two sinks lacked paper towels, one of which didn’t have soap, according to the health officials.

Malama Meals delivered thousands of meals to churches, community organizations, and seniors on Oahu, Kauai and Molokai.

Ahmad Ramadan

A cease-and-desist order was issued by the Department of Health Food Safety Branch shortly afterward.

“Without proper controls, the risk of an outbreak of food illness is high and could have a devastating impact especially on those who are elderly and have underlying conditions,” said Peter Oshiro, chief of the DOH Food Safety Branch.

The Farrington Road kitchen is operated by Ahmad Ramadan, who also operates the Da Spot location at the University of Hawaii West Oahu Dining Hall. He said its kitchen and delivery agents are licensed and certified by the health department, and the operation had been inspected by DOH food safety inspectors “10 times in the past month.”

“What they’re saying is basically half true. It’s not the full story,” he said. “All the corrections were made while they were there in just a few seconds.”

Ramadan says the improper hand washing citation was because a volunteer did not know they had to wash up to their elbows. The volunteer was corrected. The paper towels were replaced immediately, he said.

And official guidance for writing down the ‘consume-by’ time on boxes verses the plates themselves differed depending on the inspector, he said.

“They made us write the eat-by time for 8,000 plates, even though the day before that they told us to just write it on the box,” Ramadan said.  “From one inspector to the other, they have a difference preference.”

Malama Meals was ordered to cease operations after a state inspector cited issues in food temperature handling and labeling.

Ahmad Ramadan

About 3,400 meals had to be thrown away, according to Ramadan. He hopes to resume meal deliveries but says DOH has not responded to his inquiries. Malama Meals was still in the process of receiving an official 501(c)(3) designation, according to Ramadan.

“It’s just really stressful that our good deeds have gone punished,” he said, noting the takeout operation of his restaurant, Da Spot, remains open.

In a statement, Bruce Anderson, director of the Department of Health, said temperature controls are crucial to prevent food-borne illnesses.

“Although we appreciate the work being done by Malama Meals and others involved in providing meals for distribution on Oahu, Kauai and Molokai during these difficult times, we also need to be sure that health and safety guidelines related to food safety are strictly followed,” he said.

“Shipping prepared foods and distributing them to sometimes remote communities on the neighbor islands in a timely manner poses unique challenges. The last thing anyone needs is a widespread outbreak of food poisoning on top of concerns about COVID-19.”

Representatives from the city did not immediately respond to an inquiry.

Support local journalism

Studies have shown that when local journalism disappears, government financing costs go up, fewer people run for public office, elected officials become less responsive to their constituents, and voter turnout decreases. Our small nonprofit newsroom works hard every day to present local news in a deep and transparent way, without fear or favor. We also rely on donations from readers like you to keep us afloat. The more support we receive; the stronger, more sustainable our journalism becomes; the more accountable we are to you. Please consider supporting our Honolulu Civil Beat with a tax-deductible gift.

About the Author