Serving up safety


POSTED: Sunday, July 26, 2009

Hawaii's hotel industry is aiming to work hand in hand with local farmers to boost their presence on restaurant menus.

The movement toward sustainability, or featuring items from local farms—whether it be Big Island abalone, Hawaii-grown vanilla or dragonfruit—has gained momentum over the last few years.

A growing demand and interest for locally produced goods on menus is coming from consumer and chef alike.

But for hotels, food safety is a hurdle due to liability issues, especially with recent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.

A bill that became law this month aims to address this by giving local farms a hand in getting food-safety certification.

$140,000 is to be transferred from the tourism special fund to a pilot program helping farmers get certified, although the release of that money might not happen.

In concept, however, supporters of the bill are calling it the first step toward getting the state's hospitality industry to work in step with farmers.

Kyo-Ya Management Co., parent of Starwood's hotels, was a proponent of the bill.

“;This is the first initiative ever where hotels are stepping in to help another leading industry, which is agriculture,”; said Victor Kimura, Kyo-Ya's director of operations. “;This is a partnership for two industries.”;

The Hawaii hotel industry purchases about 32 to 33 percent of local agriculture, said Kimura. But if you excluded pineapple, papaya and macadamia nuts, it would be closer to 16 to 18 percent.

That means most of the produce on hotel menus is coming in from the mainland. Hawaii could do much better, he said.





        Steps to getting food safety certified:

» Learn how to comply (help is available through the College of Tropical Agriculture).


» Go through preparation training.


» Go through an on-site audit by a certified auditor. The audit will include detailed inspection of water quality, pesticide use and storage issues.


» Keep records and renew them annually.


» Be prepared to spend $500 to $1,000 on average per audit, depending on the size of the farm.





        Number of farms certified:

» 2009: 41
        » 2008: 33
        » 2007: 7
        » 2006: 10
        » 2005: 4
        » 2004: 2


Source: Hawaii Department of Agriculture


From farm to plate

Richard Lancaster, 52, executive sous-chef at the Westin Moana Surfrider, said the goal is to increase that number to 40 percent.

On a recent trip to visit farms on the Big Island, Lancaster was particularly inspired by the care and labor that farmers put into growing vanilla beans and dragonfruit, as well as the abalone grown in tanks at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority.

“;It was good to see the passion from them (the farmers),”; said Lancaster, who is among the first generation of Hawaii Regional Cuisine chefs. “;Most of them started from nothing but had visions of what they wanted to grow and became masters of their own trades.”;

Many of those farms were small maybe 15 years ago but can now handle more volume for a client like Starwood, which would like them to get certified so their products can appear on its menu.

The Sheraton Waikiki launched a “;Farm-to-the-Plate”; campaign earlier this year, designed to give local farmers incentive to grow specific crops desired by Hawaii's hotel chefs.

Kimura said, “;We are willing to rotate our menus based on the seasonality of the crops.”;

The Moana Surfrider, for instance, partnered with Makaha Mangoes to feature the tropical fruit in its cocktails and menus at its Beach Bar & Beachhouse this month, since they are in season this summer.

Chefs are also willing to change their menus to accommodate what's being grown in the fields, he said.

Kyo-Ya obtains most of its fruits and vegetables through distributor Armstrong Produce, which also supported the bill.

Armstrong, which supplies supermarkets, hotels and military commissaries, has its own outreach program that encourages local farms to get certified, according to marketing director Tisha Uyehara.

“;There is that opportunity and potential to serve a wider base of customers,”; she said.

Dean Okimoto, president of the 1,600-member Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, says safety certification is going to become more important in coming years.

Okimoto, also the owner of Nalo Farms, which supplies most restaurants with salad greens, got certified in January.

“;This is a proactive thing we're trying to do,”; he said. “;If you do it voluntarily, it's not as onerous as possible legislation in the long run. The good thing is it ensures a better-quality product.”;

Okimoto says many major hotel chains are willing to commit to local farmers in the next year, if they can get the safety certification. Plus, it's in their best interest to keep customers safe.

“;It's almost a guaranteed market,”; he said.