Saturday, March 27, 1999

Irradiator firm
weighs Hilo offer

Steris may build a plant to
treat fruit, even meat, on
Bishop Estate land

By Rod Thompson


HILO -- A "very reasonable" offer by Bishop Estate to lease land near Hilo airport for a food irradiator could be approved by Steris Corp. within three weeks, company official John Masefield says.

The facility could be completed and treating Big Island fruit about a year after that, Masefield told government, business, labor and agricultural officials yesterday.

Consumers will accept treated fruit because of growing national awareness that untreated foods can kill people, he suggested.

Irradiation would be used here to kill fruit flies, not to destroy disease organisms.

But federal approval by the end of the year for irradiation of meat will increase public acceptance, he said.

Masefield is the chief executive of Isomedix, now a division of Steris but an independent company when Mayor Stephen Yamashiro began wooing it in 1995.

Masefield said Bishop's proposal to lease one acre to Steris needs "a little bit of tweaking," but he will recommend it to Steris directors.

The plant, costing a little more than $2 million, would receive two-thirds of its funding from Steris and one-third from local investors, he said.

It would treat 5 million to 7 million pounds of papayas and other fruit in the first year but be designed to handle 100 million pounds per year, he said.

Masefield dismissed an alternate proposal to treat fruit with X-rays. The process uses a lot of electricity, but only 1 percent of that gets into fruit as X-rays, he said.

No commercial X-ray food treatment machine has ever been built, he said.

Richard Nelson, a Big Island irradiation supporter returning from a mainland trip, said vapor heat-treated papayas now in mainland stores are scarred by bad handling and tasteless because they have to be picked before they're ripe.

Masefield said corporate lawyers will make Americans familiar with irradiation.

They'll demand that their companies use irradiation on hamburgers, for example, knowing they'll be sued if customers die when a treatment can make food safe but is deliberately not used.

He cited the 1993 deaths of children in Washington State who ate undercooked hamburger at a fast-food restaurant.

Nelson said the increase in air shipments of irradiated fruit would make it economical for mainland cargo planes to fly directly to Hilo.

Kona protea grower and tourism consultant Noelani Whittington announced a partnership with businessman Tom Enomoto to lease and develop 34 acres of Bishop land next to the Steris/Isomedix site.

This "Hilo Trading Center" would allow the processing of commodities, creation of new products, and direct air shipment from Hilo, she said.

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