(June 27) KEAAU, Hawaii — Partly for comic relief, Eric Weinert has a poster-sized flowchart taped on a cubicle partition at the offices of C.W. Hawaii Pride LLC.

The poster details the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s lengthy approval process for new phytosanitary protocols.

“Look, you’ve got to pass things by the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” he said June, jokingly, but making a serious point.

Weinert said the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service can take five years to approve irradiation protocol for new commodities. Weinert gave a chuckle as he recited the “paperwork reduction act’” as another link in the approval chain.

“If we stick with this (process), I don’t think Hawaii has much of a chance, he said. “Five years to get a permit — someone else will catch us, and it is that five years we have an opportunity to make some money.”

Weinert said it commonly takes half a decade to get a permit to export to the U.S. During that time, growers lose the opportunity to develop a market. That scenario happened a few years ago when Hawaiian growers were excited about exporting the Asian favorite dragon fruit to the U.S. mainland.

Growers in Hawaii were waiting for USDA approval of irradiation for the fruit.

As they waited, producers in California began to plant dragon fruit and the market was taken away before it ever began.

In the future, Weinert said he believes Hawaii will need to be on the cutting edge of providing irradiated tropical products to the U.S. mainland. Apple bananas from Hawaii — smaller and sweeter than the cavendish variety — have been recently approved for irradiation treatment by the USDA and could represent an important new item for mainland consumers.

However, lower cost producers in Thailand and India could enter the supply picture with irradiated tropical fruit in the next few years. Peter Follett, research entomologist at the U.S. Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo, said Thailand and Mexico could be exporting irradiated mangoes to the U.S. within a year, and India won’t be too far behind.

Bill Thomas, spokesman for APHIS, said the approval process is now streamlined compared to several years ago. Today, he said the agency has established generic dose levels for groups of insects rather than determine those levels individually.

FUTURE LOOK

Despite the five-year flowchart, Weinert said he believes there is great potential in exporting already approved treated tropical fruits and vegetables.

While occasionally forced to close for a week or more for repair and maintenance and now operating at considerably less than its estimated 20-million-pound annual capacity, the irradiation facility is used for a variety of fresh produce exports to the mainland.

“It is a godsend when it is working, and the consumer likes the fruit,” Hamilton said. “We’ve never had any bad feedback.”

Depending on when maintenance occurs on the plant, he said he can sometimes hold off on harvesting rambutans and longans until the facility is back up.

Okinawan sweet potatoes, papayas, longans, rambutans and lychees are among the tropical items that are treated at a cost close to 35 cents per pound and exported to the U.S. mainland. Weinert recently said the facility processes 100,000 pounds per week of Okinawan sweet potatoes.

Not all tropical produce from Hawaii is treated with irradiation. Vapor heat treatment is used for most papaya shipments, and the vapor heat method was recently approved for sweet potatoes.

Weinert noted that a majority ownership interest in Hawaii Pride was acquired in May by Lee Cole, owner of Tropical Hawaiian Products LLC and president of Calavo Growers Inc., Santa Paula, Calif. Cole bought out other local investors in the facility. Weinert said the “CW” before Hawaii Pride represents Cole and Weinert.

Calls to Lee Cole were not returned.

While CW Hawaii Pride LLC hasn’t marketed the fruit it treats in recent years, its new connection with Tropical Hawaiian Products, a papaya marketer on the big island, may allow for some co-marketing possibilities.

“We (someday) may end up selling papaya halves, dressed and ready to eat,” Weinert said. “Those types of innovations will keep us a little ahead of the competition,” he said.

Operating since 2000, the facility was the first in the world designed to treat fruit for quarantine pests.

“This technology is not going away,” Weinert said. “It’s as close to the perfect solution that you can find for insect quarantine.”

When Weinert makes trips to call on retailers, he said that he talks about the produce, not the technology.

“The word (irradiation) brings up a lot of images that aren’t related to the technology, like nuclear bombs,” he said. “I talk about Hawaiian fruit and increasing (retail) profit margins.”

Irradiation plant gains acceptence amid concerns
Eric Weinert, senior vice president at CW Hawaii Pride LLC, Keaau, Hawaii, says the irradiation facility (above) has a five-year track record that should help the USDA speed approval of Hawaiian tropical fruit and vegetable items for treatment for pest quarantine purposes.