Suspending rules to feed homeless jeopardizes public health
Poor sanitation is a recipe for disaster, and I am deeply concerned that the Department of Health is waiving the food preparation permit requirements for people who prepare and serve food to the homeless.
Editor's note: The state Department of Health on April 3 suspended food-preparation rules for food offered free by churches and community organizations to homeless people. During the 120-day suspension, the Health Department was to consider making the suspension permanent.
We can all relate to that potluck picnic or evening event where improperly prepared or stored food led to unpleasant gastro-intestinal distress. If it can happen to us, it can and will happen to any group throughout the state.
Needless to say, the homeless population is perhaps the most vulnerable group to food poisoning. Their access to health care is poor to nonexistent. We should be protecting the homeless, not exposing them to greater risks by waiving health protocols. I fully support initiatives that make it easier for folks to help feed the homeless, but not by providing less protection because they are homeless.
Why is this an "emergency"? Our homeless problem is terrible, but we are not in a state of emergency. People are not dying of starvation. To implement the exemption without going through the public hearing process is rash and irresponsible. The rules are in place for a good reason. It is not unreasonable to wait an additional 120 days in order to consider the pros and cons of this action.
Who will be liable for food poisoning or the spread of disease? The lieutenant governor stated that the groups that prepare the food will make sure it is safe. I'm sure they are well-intentioned, but are these groups prepared to be sued if sickness or death result from bad food? Will the state be liable for approving the exemption to the rules?
The Center for Disease Control states that more than 200 known diseases can be transmitted through the preparation and serving of food. Some are infective, such as viruses, bacteria and parasites. Some are toxic, such as from pesticides, poisonous foods, or improperly prepared foods. Those with a compromised immune system, such as infants, older people, and pregnant women are considered at greater risk for food poisoning and illnesses. The homeless should be included in this group.
When you review the causes of bacterial food poisoning, most are related to the improper holding, storage, cooking temperature or preparation of food. With the emergency food rules, there is no oversight or monitoring of how food is prepared for mass cooking. In addition, there is no requirement that food preparers have the proper knowledge and education on sanitary methods and the potential for contamination. This is a danger to all of us.
Hawaii is fortunate to have many responsible nonprofit organizations that prepare and serve food for the homeless, such as the Institute for Human Services and the River of Life Mission. These organizations understand the importance of storing and preparing food under permitted conditions, especially when so much of the food is donated from many sources and is more than a day old. Perhaps the state could consider waiving fees for the permit requirements but still require the proper training for those who want to help feed the homeless.
I urge the governor, lieutenant governor and the Department of Health to carefully consider these points before making any permanent decisions on the exemption of the emergency food rules. If anything, homeless families and individuals deserve even greater protection because they are so vulnerable to disease. It is almost unconscionable to think that we are allowing food preparation for mass consumption in this manner.
Rep. Marcus Oshiro (D,Wahiawa-Whitmore Village-Poamoho) is chairman of the House Finance Committee.