Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Starting to ask questions about Hawaii food safety

by Larry Geller

Cute little fella, huh?


I have enjoyed shopping at the Chinatown markets and didn’t thinkRat Thanksgiving of visiting there at night with a camera, so I was intrigued when invited to come along and shoot some video. Check it out. It was worth the trip.

According to regulars in the small crowd outside the market window, the spectacle is a regular nighttime attraction. In other words, it happens all the time. The rats were frolicking that night and they probably look forward to their Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow. In the meantime, if you have purchased anything at this or other Chinatown markets, there’s a chance that the rats have already sampled your Thanksgiving meal.

Keep in mind that every banana you see in the video, and whatever is under the blue tarps, will likely have been sold to someone the next day. Some kids are eating them now, somewhere. The same bananas that the rats sampled first.

Throughout the shoot we did not see rats actually eating, they looked fat and probably had finished dining by the time we got there. It was all fun and games, swinging from the hanging baskets and enjoying whatever they were doing under the plastic tarps.


Amusing spectacle or not, shouldn’t we be concerned? The illustration at left (click for larger) isn’t something just plucked from the Internet, it comes straight from the Hawaii Department of Health website where they link Chinatown to a historic rat problem:

Rodents also played a major role in Hawaii's past. In 1899, bubonic plague (carried by rats) broke out in the Honolulu Chinatown district. The district was destroyed by fire, which had been set in several homes of victims in an attempt to control the disease.

In the early 1900's, the control of vectors (principally rodents and mosquitoes) was financed by public-spirited private efforts, principally through fund-raising by the respective chambers of commerce. These problems were assumed as territorial functions by the Board of Health under two separate Bureaus: Rodent Control and Mosquito Control. In 1970, the two separate Bureaus were merged into a single state Vector Control Branch. This merge facilitated program and economic efficiency in the protection and prevention of vector borne diseases.

So isn’t it time to start asking questions? In advance of any research, I just want to ask where is the Department of Health after hours? Even if they do inspect the markets during the daytime, it appears that to catch a rat you need to be on the job past sunset. If the rat circus in Chinatown is a nightly event, that means that DOH vector control is lacking.

There are several open-plan marketplaces in Chinatown, including  Maunakea Market Place, Oahu Market, and the Kekaulike Market. Each of them is divided into spaces that are run as individual shops. What we saw Monday night was one shop which was infested with rats, and which brought into question the sanitation of all of the others that might sell other than packaged products.

In an open-plan market, there’s nothing to keep a rat from shopping around. One nearby shop visible through the windows sells fish. Everything there was tightly sealed up, but unless they clean the scales and other exposed surfaces each and every day, they also could be contaminated by the next-door rat party.

Unless sanitation is enforced on each and every shop, all the others can be affected. I wonder also about inspections of nearby shops and restaurants that block their windows from view after hours with wood or cardboard.

An infestation of the scale we witnessed is not only unappetizing, but I think it could be dangerous, and wonder when the Department of Health will get around to fixing this. I’ll make sure they see this article.

I have other questions, and for now, they are also just questions. DOH is also responsible for restaurant inspections. Anecdotally, they are few. It is also possible to report problems to their sanitation branch and they are supposed to follow up. I did so around a year ago, reporting a chain restaurant that was not washing the little milk pitchers after use at a table. They took them out of the dirty bussing tray, poured in more milk, and delivered it to the next table. All day long, those things probably never got washed. If someone would sneeze into one, you’d still get it.

Pleasant thought, right? So I called it in. I was told that someone would visit the place and check. Several months later, the practice continues. I mean, I love their pancakes, but I won’t drink their coffee. Obviously, I need to check again with the DOH and see if they visited and/or took any action. I’ll get back to you on that. In the meantime, if you eat pancakes out occasionally, watch those milk pitchers and let me know if you see the same thing.

Bottom line, I think the DOH has something to answer on both of these issues, but I haven’t yet followed up with them.

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Will it take a rat flu to get the state to clean up these markets?

That was great video footage of the situation. I was informed by reliable sources that when the restaurant closes it operation for the night, the rats come out and play there too. Too bad, you can't get into the restaurant cooking area to film that at night.

I personally think that the DOH don't really enforce health issues. For instance, if you go to the west side of Oahu... there are vendors on the side of the road selling smoked meat. This goes on every weekend when you head towards nanakuli. Where is the health department? Why don't they check there?

Anyway, I sincerely enjoyed the video.. great reporting..


Mrs. Lingle just returned from her trip to China in an effort to bring in more tourist. I do not want to sound ugly, but don't they eat rats in China? Maybe that is why she is not so worried about this situation, we are making sure the new tourist feel right at home and find their favorite fares of food. I am outraged by the lack of action, and hope that my comment is not viewed as racist, it is not meant to be.

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