Diarrhea — let alone something called rat lungworm nematode — can ruin any vacation, so the last thing the tourist industry needs is an association with the risk of foodborne illness.

But would a move toward science-based, risk-reducing agricultural practices in Hawaii help to control a parasitic worm and reduce other food-safety risks, or would proposed new standards hurt the state’s local farmers?

After an upgrade of Hawaii’s food safety law was overwhelmingly approved by the state’s Democratic-controlled Legislature, Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie this week put House Bill 667 on a list of bills he might veto.

The bill would create a food safety and security program within the Hawaii Department of Agriculture. Some of the reasons for it are spelled out in its preamble:

  • Safe production, distribution, and consumer handling of food require knowledge of food borne pathogens, chemical toxins, food quality, and labeling.
  • Hawaii’s current system of regulation is understaffed, and the remaining staff is unprepared or untrained for the rapid changes that have occurred in risk assessment, production and distribution methodologies, and new foods and emerging pathogens.
  • Food safety programs are also not integrated among government agencies, hampering communication and cooperation.
  • In addition, many of Hawaii’s growers are not implementing good agricultural practices. This failure to follow science-based, risk-reducing food production practices is worsened by the existence of the rat lungworm nematode in Hawaii. When consumed, this nematode can cause serious illness, as has happened numerous times during the past few years.

In January 2009 three people in Hawaii came down with rat lungworm disease after eating raw vegetables – and physicians fear they may have accidentally swallowed slug larvae hidden inside folds of raw peppers that may not have been thoroughly washed. One of the eaters eventually survived a coma. In May 2011 four probable cases of rat lungworm disease were discovered in Hawaii among salad eaters.

To help prevent this and other food-safety risks, the proposed new law would:

  • Provide training, certification, support, and assistance to the agricultural industry;
  • Assist the Hawaii agricultural industry in achieving food safety and security in a cost-effective and efficient manner; and
  • Perform all inspections and certifications of agricultural commodities in an efficient, effective, and expeditious manner; and develop and implement programs to educate and develop the agricultural industry to meet state and federal laws, rules, and regulations.

According to press reports, Abercrombie believes food safety is important but has concerns about funding the law and whether it provides authority to establish administrative rules.

The Hawaii Farmer’s Union is asking others to sign on to a petition to the governor seeking a veto over its concern that the new law will “negatively effect local farmers and the consumers relying on them to supply healthy food.”

Food safety attorney Bill Marler, visiting Oahu this week for the Hawaii Food Safety Expo, said HB 667 may be done in by farmers and restaurant owners who oppose even the current certification process as too costly and inconvenient, and who think being small and local translates into being safe.

“Once again, the local food movement throws food safety to the side in exchange for the belief that somehow local food is safer if not regulated,” said Marler, who is also publisher of Food Safety News.