Chinatown vendors battle rat infestation


POSTED: Friday, December 04, 2009

Chinatown business leaders have their own plans to reduce a rat population that was highlighted in an Internet video showing the rodents scurrying across fresh produce in a market.

The video, posted last month by local blogger Larry Geller on his Web site, prompted an investigation by the state Department of Health, which will return today to see whether alleged violations have been corrected.

But some worry the video highlights a problem that will worsen under state budget cuts at the Health Department.

“;We do not have a workable system of food inspection in Hawaii,”; Geller said. “;It's a dysfunctional system.”;

Health Department officials say they are doing what they can to enforce sanitation rules and reduce vermin-carried diseases in spite of budget cuts.

“;We will respond with the extent we can,”; said Larry Lau, deputy director of the department's Environmental Health Services Division. “;Obviously, with fewer staff we'll be limited to what we can respond to and how quickly.”;

He said the department's Sanitation Branch has had to freeze three vacancies, leaving nine inspectors to cover Oahu's 5,500 food establishments. With the smaller staff, the island's restaurants are inspected once every 2 1/2 to 3 years, instead of every two years, he said.

Even with a full staff, inspectors can never be everywhere, and so businesses must monitor themselves and consumers must wash all fresh food, he said.

Budget restrictions are also forcing the department to lay off 38 of 53 staff members in the department's Vector Control Branch in January, he said. Vector Control prevents outbreaks of disease carried by rodents or insects.

Some are taking the initiative to reduce the rat population on their own.

Johnny Ng, vice president of the Chinatown Business and Community Association, said community leaders decided in April that reducing the rat population could enhance the neighborhood and attract visitors.

The community is trying to buy four worm bins for $10,000 that merchants can dump their food waste into, reducing the amount of fresh waste left on the street, he said.

“;We have a very big rat problem and on top of that a homeless issue,”; he said.

On Wednesday, in response to Geller's video, the Health Department visited Pacing Market inside a large market on Kekaulike Street. A Sanitation Branch inspector issued at least four citations related to rodents, Lau said.

The concern is that rat feces and urine could contaminate food and make people sick.

Pacing Market owner Pacencia Edrada said she has tried to eliminate the rats, but she is only one stall in an open building.

“;This is a big market,”; she said. “;I just renting one stall. They (the rats) go around any place.”;

Lau said he did not know whether other vendors or the property owner were cited.