Hawaii’s farmers could face a reckoning as the Food and Drug Administration resumes food safety audits after a two-year reprieve due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Food Safety Modernization Act, signed in 2011, empowered the FDA to regulate food growth, harvesting and processing nationwide in response to a spate of food-borne illnesses, such as E. coli or salmonella. 

But even after more than a decade, agriculture experts say a general lack of action on food safety by the state and Hawaii farmers could seriously hamper efforts to increase local food production and reduce the state’s reliance on imports.

Food safety has largely been swept under the carpet because it’s either considered too difficult or expensive to adhere to or something that does not apply to small farmers, according to Hawaii Agricultural Foundation President Dean Okimoto.

“Nobody is saying anything about it,” said Okimoto. “They’re just talking about growing.”

The main issue expected to be a problem for Hawaii’s farms is the FSMA Produce Safety rule, which has been perceived as overly labor intensive and costly due to increased requirements for record-keeping, planning, water testing and general infrastructure.

It took the FDA until 2019 to start auditing all farms subject to their rules — farms earning over $25,000 per year. Then the Covid-19 pandemic forced the FDA to halt audits, which resumed nationwide on Feb. 2.

Leafy greens are often recalled due to food safety concerns. Sensei Ag

Best Practices

According to Hawaii Department of Agriculture data from 2017, just 533 farms in the islands were subject to the FSMA Produce Safety rule, which carries several potential penalties.

If convicted of a misdemeanor, farmers could face up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000. If a violation results in death the maximum fine is $250,000.

“If the federal government gets out there and really starts looking at it, these farmers are going to be run out of business,” said Okimoto.

Meanwhile, 4,250 of 7,300 farms in Hawaii earn under $9,999 yearly, according to recently published U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. Those farms do not fall under the FDA’s jurisdiction and are not subject to its requirements.

But Hawaii needs to show it is serious about upscaling its agricultural system by rolling out more food safety education and certification programs to ensure local food is as safe as possible, according to Okimoto.

Hawaii-grown food could then make it into more grocery stores requiring food safety certifications, rather than relying on farmers’ markets and more casual cash-based markets.

And though FDA sets the regulations, conducts the audits and lays out best practices, it does not provide any form of certification. The USDA does that, with help from third-party accreditors as well as private certifications. 

USDA administers Good Agricultural Practices and Harmonized Good Agricultural Practices certifications, which aim to ensure that “fruits and vegetables are produced, packed, handled, and stored in the safest manner possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards.”

Large-scale retailers also have their own certifications that are required for farms providing food to them.

“You go to California and it’s hard to find a farm that’s not certified but in Hawaii, 99% are not,” Okimoto said. Because mainland farms were more certified, it made it easier for larger grocers and outlets to ensure their safety. “For them, it’s safer.”

But the numbers of just how many are certified and audited are not exactly clear.

University of Hawaii extension agents, such as Josh Silva, left, do food safety education with farmers. Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2021

Food Safety Education

Hawaii lawmakers are taking aim at food safety with House Bill 1499, which states that just 32 farms in Hawaii have any food safety certification. 

Kevin Kelly, president and CEO of the North Shore Economic Vitality Partnership. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2018

HB 1499 would allocate funding to increase education programs for farmers. The measure has passed the House and awaits Senate consideration.

The money would likely be given to the only statewide GAP and HGAP accreditation outfit, North Shore Economic Vitality Partnership.

The nonprofit group is asking for $250,000 to expand its capacity, although the pace will depend on how the FDA rolls out its audits, according to president and CEO Kevin Kelly. 

“If FDA puts the squeeze on and really does a blitzkrieg on inspections in Hawaii, we might have huge demand and really need to scale up rapidly,” Kelly said. “We would need an influx of funding to do that.”

While FSMA covers only a fraction of Hawaii’s farms, food safety rules need to be integrated into small farms too, especially as the state aims to increase food production and consumers demand a level of certainty over their food’s safety. 

Kelly said his group does what it can to help educate farmers about food safety issues — and certify them — but the state needs to take the lead.

“Quite frankly, it’s not the role of a nonprofit to be doing USDA certifications for the state in the end,” he added.

Currently farmers can either approach Kelly’s organization or complete certification on their own, with the agriculture department. The University of Hawaii extension service, run by the College of Tropical Health and Agricultural Resources, also provides training for the FSMA Produce Safety rule, but does not train, audit or certify for GAP or HGAP. 

UH has provided FSMA training to farmers, covering about 500 people since 2015.

The threat of rat lungworm disease was pervasive a few years ago, across Hawaii. Tad Bartimus/Civil Beat/2017

Facing Pushback

Okimoto points to rat lungworm disease as an example of what can go wrong without strong oversight of food safety protocols.

The disease has infected more than 90 people and killed two since 2009. It can cause serious neurological harm and death and is often transmitted through unwashed fruits and vegetables. 

With more certification and regulation, problems like rat lungworm disease could be traced and dealt with faster, Okimoto says.

“It should have moved people to ask more of (the state) and ask more questions,” Okimoto said. “But nobody did.”

The lack of food safety standards could also hamper progress as state agencies are being mandated, through two separate acts, to increase their purchasing of food from local sources. 

Okimoto is concerned it may also affect food hubs and cooperative groups, both of which are being highlighted as potential solutions to help Hawaii overcome its need to import approximately 80% of its food.

When FSMA was enacted in 2011, Hawaii’s farmers were concerned about a perceived increase in bureaucracy and cost with the need for accreditation, education and audits.

And while past bills and outside funding have helped outfits subsidize the cost of training and accreditation, any additional expense is a blow to Hawaii’s small farmers, according to Hawaii Farm Bureau Executive Director Brian Miyamoto.

Many farmers in Hawaii, whose average age is 60, thought they would just close shop, Miyamoto says. 

“The costs may seem nominal but they’re not,” Miyamoto said. Any hour spent off the farm is an hour of work lost. “It’s a cost. It’s preparing to keep up with the FSMA.”

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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