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Rat lungworm disease fears hurt Hawaii produce market


    The rat lungworm parasite.

KAILUA-KONA >> The Hawaii Department of Agriculture is urging consumers to simply wash their vegetables in hopes of guarding against the threat of rat lungworm disease.

The disease is believed to have been present in Hawaii for at least a half-century, but 16 confirmed cases in 2017 have caused “a somewhat hysterical reaction.”

Wholesalers and retailers in Maui have been hit hard with cases of the disease, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported today.

“Some of those farmers that grow that kind of produce, lettuces and cabbages, have been hit really hard, especially on Maui,” said Dr. John McHugh, administrator for the Plant Industry Division with HDOA. “I understand some affected farmers are switching crops to something that’s not normally eaten raw. That way they get away from the potential stigma of rat lungworm disease being associated with raw produce.”

Rat lungworm disease is caused by a parasite found in rodents, which can pass the parasite to snails, slugs, crabs and other critters.

The disease, which affects the brain and spinal cord, can cause nausea, vomiting, severe pain and temporary paralysis. Symptoms can last a few weeks or months, but the parasites eventually die, according to the Hawaii Department of Health.

Hawaii resident Sonny Saradpon said he and his wife buy local despite the threat and also continue to cultivate their own garden in Hilo.

“There’s always going to be something,” Saradpon said. “The main thing you have to do is just inspect and prep your food well.”

Maureen Datta is the co-owner and operator of Adaptions Inc., a regional food hub on Hawaii Island that buys from dozens of local growers and sells wholesale to every level of the food industry across the state. The company also runs a community-supported agricultural service that supplies 125 families directly with local produce.

Datta said the media craze around rat lungworm over the last few months has proven the culprit of whatever undue fear exists among Hawaii Island consumers.

“I think that educating people is important, but scaring people is not because it just paralyzes them and it can really hurt our industry,” Datta said.

Other outlets indicated that local produce sales are down on Hawaii Island, but also registered the impact as minimal thus far.

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