The existing third-party food-safety certification program, also known as Good Agricultural Practices, is a mainland process designed by the California Leafy Greens folks in reaction to the big E. coli outbreak in packaged spinach among some of their members.
These are the folks who run the many huge 40,000-plus-acre farms of monoculture that input leafy greens directly into centralized processors for packaging and distribution.
The E. coli was finally traced to a processor, not a farm — yet this program has been embraced by most of Hawaii’s agricultural institutions, major grocery outlets, distributors and the hotel, resort and restaurant industries.
Let’s do a “true or false”:
>> The greatest risk for food-borne illness is from on-farm contamination.
>> The food safety program identifies science-based risks and solutions.
>> The food safety program gives consumers greater access to locally grown produce.
>> Food safety certification guarantees safe food for consumers.
>> Food safety is a legislative requirement.
Of course, none of this is true. In fact the existing food-safety certification program is onerous, disproportionate to the risks and the greatest threat to Hawaii’s goals of food security and sustainability.
Let’s look at some facts:
>> The greatest risk of food-borne illness is actually the home kitchen, where cross contamination is rampant, followed by processing companies that mix, shred, chop and bag fresh greens and fruits.
>> Science tells us that the biggest risk is E. coli, and that it exists naturally and primarily in grain-fed cattle and human digestive tracks. So in actuality, the human food safety inspector is a greater risk to my farm’s food safety than my animals.
>> Anyone walking through the produce aisles of our major grocery markets and military commissaries will find imported papayas, bananas, avocados, mangoes, ginger, etc. Instead of including Hawaii farms, the food safety system excludes most of them.
Click on the website that lists all of the certified farms in Hawaii — www.hifarmsafe.org/ — and count the farms (listed as Ranch). There are 40 certified farms in Hawaii listed out of 7,500 (USDA statistic); that’s half of 1 percent.
So how does a system that excludes 99.5 percent of our farms support local farmers?
>> Besides being overreaching, overbearing, inefficient and ineffective, the current system has no guarantees. Sorry, consumers, food safety does not mean safe food. The only guarantee that it provides to the consumer is that all of the pages upon pages of documentation are in order, up to date and follow the prescribed formats perfectly. It guarantees only the trivial: that there is a paper towel dispenser in the restroom, that you can’t smoke in the fields, and that your fresh produce will be imported.
>> There has never been any consumer demand for this, but our food safety fanatics have warned that the feds will soon make it mandatory. Well, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, just signed by President Barack Obama, does mandate food safety but also exempts small farmers.
Now, not only is there no consumer demand, there also is no legislative demand for this system. The only demand is an artificial one created by the corporate bad behavior of our grocers that strip local produce from their shelves.
I am actually writing this letter as I take a needed break from completing page after page of my updated food safety manual for this year’s inspection.
I know the existing system is a scam because I’ve done it.
I also know we need a state-designed food safety system that is science-based; that includes our farmers and leads us to food security and sustainability.