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Industry fights for inspectors


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POSTED: Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Agricultural industry executives worry that Hawaii businesses will wither on the vine and incoming food will rot on the docks if the state goes through with massive layoffs of agriculture inspectors.

Plans call for laying off 50 of the state's 78 agriculture inspectors, 64 percent of that specialized work force.

Diminished inspection capacity could also cost hundreds of millions of dollars each year if additional invasive species get established, industry officials say.

State inspectors both certify products to be exported out of Hawaii and inspect food and plants being imported into the state.

Agricultural groups are mobilizing to fight the cuts to save members' businesses and to help prevent skyrocketing food prices and pest infiltration.

The state Department of Agriculture's Plant Quarantine Branch is understaffed as it is, said Dean Okimoto, president of both the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation and Nalo Farms Inc. The federation's neighbor island directors will be in Honolulu for a board meeting today.

A total of 118 of the department's 340 employees are to be cut, but officials are working to secure $2.3 million to restore 25 inspectors' jobs for a year, said state Board of Agriculture Chairwoman Sandra Kunimoto. Funds are being sought from the Hawaii Invasive Species Council as well as the Invasive Pest Inspection, Quarantine and Eradication Fund.

The latter was established by the state Legislature two years ago to have air and maritime shippers help offset inspection costs. They are required to pay in 50 cents per thousand pounds of cargo, Kunimoto said.

The Invasive Species Council might act or indicate a likely decision late next week, she said. The Agriculture Department and state Department of Land and Natural Resources run the council.

Industry officials describe an inefficient inspection system even without the layoffs, saying there is no central intake facility at the docks or at airports.

“;We're actually chasing these containers all over town to inspect them,”; Kunimoto said. Talks with the state Department of Transportation have begun. “;We need the cooperation of the industry and other state departments,”; she said.

The state House and Senate have been staging hearings around the state to press the case for preserving inspectors' jobs.

At a meeting on Maui, it was reported that the brown tree snake, which inspectors have interdicted, causes $450 million in damage and negative economic impacts every two to three years where it has established populations, said Jeffrey Parker, president of Maui-based Tropical Orchid Farm Inc.

“;These inspectors are our first wall of defense against invasive species entering into Hawaii. ... They're keeping out all the pests that will shut us down.”;

Shutting down could be a certainty for Parker and others, as their products need certification to be shipped intrastate, interstate and beyond. Without it they will be unable to operate and keep workers employed, sending a cascade of workers into the unemployment system, he said.

Closure will also stop the businesses' purchases from other local businesses.

Okimoto said he has seen that at the state level, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

When coqui frogs arrived, “;we asked for $50,000 to eradicate (them) and we didn't get it, so the next year we asked for half a mil and we got that, but we weren't able to eradicate it,”; he said. “;And today, what, it costs over $10 million (a year) for control efforts.”;

The coqui is a nuisance, but the venomous red imported fire ant poses a more severe threat.

Parker cited a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study saying “;the cost of controlling (the ant) is $212 million a year,”; whereas the state agricultural layoffs are projected to save $3.8 million.

Okimoto said he is thinking about “;doing something at the Capitol to ask, 'Do you want us around? If you don't, do these cuts and see if we survive. We're not going to survive.'”;

Immediate impact of Plant Quarantine inspector layoffs:

» Delayed inspections of imported agricultural material, including produce, Christmas trees, plants, live animals and seafood

» Delayed inspections and certifications of nursery products transported to neighbor islands, the mainland and foreign countries

» Delayed processing of import permits, required for importing microorganisms and nondomestic animals (pet birds, rats, guinea pigs, aquarium fish, etc.)

Plant Quarantine Branch inspection routine priorities:

» Aircraft, vessels and cargo (commercial and military) from Guam and other high-risk areas for the brown tree snake

» Commodities for human consumption such as produce, seafood and other processed food items at risk for red imported fire ant and other pests

» Commodities for animal consumption, such as hay, corn meal, cottonseed, etc.

» Live nondomestic animals for the pet trade, retail sales, aquaculture production, re-export, exhibition and research

» Microorganisms including microbial products, research and development, aquaculture production and biotechnology

» Plants and plant parts for nursery, seed and farm production, and retail sales

» Responding to pest reports or investigations

» Export certification for nursery-grown products

» Intrastate inspections and clearances of agricultural commodities including surveillance at air and sea ports of exit

Animal Industry Division

» Possible delays in processing of arriving dogs and cats for rabies quarantine at the airport

» Possible reduced hours for animal releases from the airport

Livestock inspections

» Reduced animal disease monitoring and surveillance

Source: State Department of Agriculture