Kokua Line

June Watanabe

Hawaii’s imported produce
not linked to hepatitis scare

Question: In light of people getting sick from green onions, where do we get ours from? Where does most of our produce come from? And do those so-called vegetable washers you can buy in supermarkets work?

Answer: Most of the green onions consumed in Hawaii are locally grown, but at this time of the year, because of shortages, some green onions are imported from Mexico, according to one of the state's largest produce wholesalers.

However, the green onions are not from any of the Mexican companies implicated in the hepatitis A contamination in Georgia, Tennessee and Pennsylvania, said Tish Uyehara, marketing director for Armstrong Produce.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration already had alerted U.S. border inspectors to detain any raw green onions from "a small number" (eight) of companies in Mexico associated with the hepatitis A outbreak.

But it's important to note that the contaminated green onions are no longer available, FDA spokeswoman Janet McDonald said in a telephone interview last week from Alameda, Calif. "That's why there is no recall."

She also said that while the focus is on the eight implicated Mexican companies, "Customs (also) is looking at all shipments coming in" from Mexico.

"Mexican officials have been very responsive during the outbreak investigation and are investigating practices at these firms to determine what might have contributed to the contamination at the source," the FDA said in a Nov. 21 press release.

Hepatitis A is usually transmitted by food or drink contaminated with the feces of an infected person. It typically is transmitted by infected restaurant workers who touch raw food without washing their hands, or by washing food with contaminated water. Cooking usually kills the virus.

On Nov. 25, the FDA said it believed the green onions that led to the recent illnesses were contaminated as a result of unsanitary conditions in the production or packing facilities, either because of poor worker hygiene, inadequate worker sanitation facilities and/or via a contaminated water supply.

The state Department of Health has not issued any special advisory regarding the hepatitis A illnesses linked to green onions imported from Mexico. Locally, there has been no evidence of food-borne illness related to green onions, said Health Department spokeswoman Janice Okubo.

That said, although 85 percent to 90 percent of the green onions consumed in Hawaii are locally grown, Armstrong was bringing in some green onions from Mexico via shippers in Los Angeles to supplement the local product, Uyehara said.

"Our shippers are all reputable and they all have food safety programs in place," she said. "People should not be alarmed."

If you're concerned about where your green onions come from, ask your grocer.

The FDA advises consumers to cook green onions thoroughly to reduce or eliminate the hepatitis A virus; substitute other types of onions in recipes; and ask whether items contain raw or lightly cooked green onions at restaurants and delicatessens.

Meanwhile, much of the fruits and vegetables eaten in Hawaii are grown in Hawaiian soil.

"In terms of fresh vegetables, we grow about 42 percent of what we consume," said Don Martin, head of the state Department of Agriculture's Hawaii Agriculture Statistics Service. "For some items, it's a much higher percentage."

"We've made quite a lot of progress in recent years in 'import replacement'" -- growing many of the vegetables that were primarily imported, he said. They include tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, some melons, sweet corn, etc.

"So when you look at the vegetables, although we produce a little less than 50 percent ourselves, when you go item by item, there are a lot of items -- cabbages and green onions -- that we produce most of what we consume here," Martin said.

When it comes to fresh fruits, Hawaii produces "closer to 50 percent" of what it consumes.

"In the case of fresh fruit, we produce way more than we consume locally," Martin said. "We export about twice as much fruit as we import," with pineapple and papayas being the two largest export crops.

Many fruits are imported primarily to give consumers variety, since there are many, such as apples and grapes, that aren't grown here, "and those are big items," Martin noted. "But in terms of fruits, we have papayas, bananas, pineapples, a lot of tropical specialty fruits, avocados, and on and on."

Uyehara said that local produce wholesalers, "in varying percentages," try to obtain local produce.

"But we do have to supplement it" at certain times of the year, she said. Most of the produce comes from the U.S. mainland, but "certainly we do get foreign imports because the growing seasons are different."

"So when the mainland may be out of a commodity, it may come from South America or some place like that."

Vegetable "washers"

There are a number of fruit and vegetable washing products available, but whether they "work" or not is subjective.

However, they must at least have to be registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency if they claim to be anti-bacterial.

"Our EPA regulations require the registration of any kind of product that is a pesticide, a herbicide, a fungicide, a bactericide -- anything that basically makes those claims needs to go through a registration process," said Dean Higuchi, press officer with EPA's Region 9.

The EPA also has cracked down on companies making unsubstantiated claims about their products rinsing away bacteria, parasites and fungus.

Higuchi emphasized that just because a product is registered with the EPA does not mean that the agency endorses it in any way or substantiates any claims.

As an example, he says one dishwashing detergent may claim to be anti-bacterial while one is just a regular dishwashing soap. "We're not going to say either is better. But because of the way the rules are written, because that anti-bacterial one is making the claim it kills germs, they need to register."

Perhaps vegetable and fruit washes can lessen the risk of microbial contamination, but it boils down to practicing proper hygiene, Higuchi said.

Consumers are advised to take "a lot of common-sense precautions" and "not necessarily rely on products," he said.

The EPA advises consumers to:

>> Wash and scrub all fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water to help remove bacteria and traces of chemicals from the surface. However, the EPA says not all pesticide residues can be removed by washing.

>> Peel fruits and vegetables when possible to reduce dirt, bacteria, and pesticides. Discard outer leaves of leafy vegetables.

For more information, check the EPA's Web site at


See the Columnists section for some past articles.

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