Friday, September 16, 2011
Hawaii government cannot guarantee safety of the state’s food
by Larry Geller
Would it give you confidence in the efficiency of government in Hawaii to learn that the safety of the food you buy, particularly the fresh vegetables and perishable fish and meats, cannot be guaranteed because the products go uninspected? Or that the restaurant where you eat may have gross food safety violations that will never be detected by inspectors?
Both are true, as I discovered this week.
The failure of Hawaii’s Department of Health to protect the safety of our food supply was made very evident two years ago when my Thanksgiving day video revealed that a major Honolulu Chinatown market was infested with rats. The public reaction was reported to have cut business in Chinatown 50-60% before they faced the problem and cleaned up the market. Other markets have kept their lights off and my camera out when they shut their doors each day.
The rats were able to feast and frolic because Department of Health inspectors never saw them. Even after the video went viral. DOH refused to authorize overtime.
"Reproduced with permission (c) John S. Pritchett"
My visit last Saturday to the new farmers market on the Ala Moana Center parking lot near Sears raised some concerns. I checked with the Department of Health on one vendor in particular and learned that the DOH would not be able to go check the temperature of the fish because—I hope you’re sitting down—the market is open only on Saturday and inspectors are not given overtime.
That’s right—no inspector will bring a thermometer to check if the fish, sitting on top of some ice packs in the hot sun, is at a safe temperature.
I did learn, however, that the vendor did not have the necessary permit to sell fish from that tent in the first place.
Will the DOH go back this Saturday to see if the vendor is there, and to measure the temperature of the fish? No. Remember, no overtime, no inspection. Will the vendor get the necessary permit? I hope so, but who will know?
The market vendors understand this, as do the vendors selling from stands along the highways over the weekend. They are safe from inspection, safe from regulation.
In effect, Hawaii has no food safety enforcement on weekends or after hours. Anything that takes place after weekday working hours goes uninspected. To say that this is a dangerous situation may be an understatement. It would apply, for example, to the food you might buy at a weekend event at Aloha Stadium, as KITV reported:
"For routine inspections, we're not able to do any inspections in the evenings, weekends, holidays, and, of course, furlough Fridays," said Peter Oshiro, the standards office supervisor of the Sanitation Branch of the state Department of Health, which handles restaurant inspections.
[KITV, Aloha Stadium Food Booths Go 2+ Years With No Inspections, 10/28/2010]
Did you ever have a tummy ache and suspected it was something you ate? There is really no such thing as “stomach flu,” but it could have been bad food or a meal at an uninspected restaurant.
So I took the opportunity in the same phone call to report a problem that I had observed in two popular Honolulu restaurants. Remember now, Honolulu’s inspectors are so few that they may not get around to checking a restaurant more than once every two years or so. Just as food vendors know they will not be inspected, restaurant operators also know. So it falls to the average citizen to report a concern, and the DOH will then dispatch an inspector.
I described what I had seen over the span of several visits to these restaurants and where the inspectors should look to see the problem. DOH did send an inspector to each restaurant, and they called back promptly with the result. Did they observe the problem, I asked? No, was the answer.
Here’s why. The inspectors don’t have much time. So their practice on a complaint like this is to seek compliance, not catch the infraction. So both inspectors went straight to the restaurant managers, identified themselves as inspectors, and asked if the problem was occurring. The managers, of course, said no.
Most likely the managers will see to it that the infraction is not repeated, and the objective of achieving compliance may be met. But how will DOH ever know? They did not see the problem. If I see it again and report it, they will do the same thing, and so they have no way of ever determining that the restaurant is in compliance. They might as well do their work with blindfolds on.
We certainly need more inspectors in Honolulu--whatever it will take to begin a program of inspection and regulation that will ensure the safety of our food supply. It’s clear that we don’t have one now. The state’s flat refusal to authorize overtime is an abdication of tis responsibilities.
Would APEC 2011 delegates be happy to learn that Hawaii cannot assure them that the food they are being served is safe? Should they visit the market while they are at Ala Moana Center or take a side trip to the popular tourist attraction that the KCC Saturday Farmers Market has become (it will be in their guidebooks), do they know that the vendors are never inspected at all?
But more important, when will Hawaii’s government begin to do its job? In the meantime, we bloggers could at least use quotation marks every time we refer to the Hawaii Department of “Health” for the sake of accuracy.
This should sit well with libertarians. If people begin to get sick people will not buy fish from that vendor effectively closing their business down. If you die from eating rotten fish the libertarian solution is to bring a lawsuit against the vendor. Smaller government, ain't it a blast.
Of course, the Libertarian won't know if it was the bad fish. Coulda been the bad pistachios, also un-inspected for aflotoxin. When the Libertarians are getting sick like the rest of us, they should change their tune.
Should have mentioned this earlier, but here you go: It's nit just weekends that DOH does not have or will not send inspectors. If it's after hours on a weekday? No dice! I found this out because I kept seeing eggs basking in the late afternoon sun at the smaller evening farmer's markets around town. By law, they must be refrigerated at something like 40 degrees soon after laying/collection. When I ask vendors about it, they say stuff like, "Oh there's a special coating, which the big commercial vendors wash off, that protects them" or "They're OK for 24 hours after laying." Of course, they can't say for a fact whether that "special coating" is there or not or, for that matter, whne the eggs were actually laid. DOH confirmed that their admin rules require refrigeration but said there's nothing they can do if the unrefrigerated eggs are sold after hours. Shoots, they may not have the humanpower to send someone DURING work hours. As per above, it'll just have to wait 'til someone gets sick or . . . . .
Yes, that's right, they will not authorize overtime after hours. That came out during the rat thing a couple of years ago.
These days we have "pop-up" restaurants which only operate a couple of evenings a month. So they will never be inspected.
There oughta be a law abut this, don't you think?
Thanks very much for your comment on this.
Well, making another law would keep some people occupied but it probably won't fix the problem (as I'm sure you know!). What we need is leadership toward achieving a prioritized set of shared goals, food safety/security among them. Unfortunately, that leadership is in short -- and shrinking -- supply.