Healthful diet need not
bring fear of illness


Fruits and vegetables have become an increasing source of food-borne illnesses.

CONSUMERS heeding advice to eat more fresh vegetables and fruits and the demand for a variety of produce year-round may be fueling a surge in food-borne illnesses, but people in Hawaii should not fear that adopting more healthful diets will cause them harm.

Awareness of a product's origin and proper hygiene assure in most instances that fresh produce is safe to eat. The problem also points to the advantages of bolstering Hawaii's agricultural production where safety and sanitation may be more closely controlled and monitored.

Various statistics show that in 2000, there were almost as many cases of food poisoning from produce as there were from meats, poultry, fish and eggs combined.

A recent outbreak of hepatitis A that killed three people and sickened as many as 600 others in western Pennsylvania was eventually linked to scallions imported from Mexico, causing concern among Hawaii residents because scallions -- more commonly known here as green onions -- are often used raw in local foods.

However, as the Star-Bulletin's June Watanabe reports in today's Kokua Line, 85 to 90 percent of the green onions consumed in Hawaii are locally grown and although some are imported from Mexico, none originate from the eight producers connected to the Pennsylvania incident.

Hawaii's climate is suitable for year-round cultivation and as a result, 42 percent of fresh vegetables consumed in the state is home grown. In recent years, produce such as tomatoes, cucumbers and corn --vegetables that were once shipped in from the mainland and other locations -- are now farmed here.

In addition, the state Department of Health is continuing a program for safe food handling at restaurants, retail stores, farms, wholesale markets and schools, urging hand-washing and providing safety information. Meanwhile, wholesale operations are increasing efforts to certify that what they buy from island farmers has been grown and handled under safe conditions.

The hepatitis outbreak is believed to have been caused by onions contaminated either through infected workers who defecated in the fields near where the scallions were harvested or by being washed in water tainted by sewage. But experts say contamination can also occur all through the food chain when handlers do not use hygienic practices. So while hand-washing sounds like a small thing, it is important in preventing the spread of disease.

It is with this in mind that the state's sanitation branch hopes the multilingual stickers it is distributing to retailers and restaurants will become a common sight, reports the Star-Bulletin's Lyn Danninger. The stickers, designed in collaboration with the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, the Department of Agriculture and food-trade organizations, advise food handlers to wash their hands frequently, especially after using the bathroom.

The certification process is more complicated and Hawaii farmers have been slow to adapt to new safety guidelines, not because they operate under unsafe conditions, but because they are focused primarily on growing and harvesting. Nonetheless, unless their produce can be certified as safe, they will face dwindling markets as wholesalers and retailers respond to consumer demands for quality assurance.

This is where state officials can help. As agriculture contributes more to the diversity of Hawaii's economy, it is in the state's interest to lend a hand.

Consumers themselves can satisfy their own concerns simply by asking their grocers where a product originated and getting information about which countries institute safety practices. Careful washing of fruits and vegetables also is an easy step to take.



Oahu Publications, Inc. publishes the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, MidWeek and military newspapers

David Black, Dan Case, Larry Johnson,
Duane Kurisu, Warren Luke, Colbert
Matsumoto, Jeffrey Watanabe,
Frank Teskey, Publisher

Frank Bridgewater, Editor, 529-4791;
Michael Rovner, Assistant Editor, 529-4768;
Lucy Young-Oda, Assistant Editor, 529-4762;

Mary Poole, Editorial Page Editor, 529-4748;

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