By John Chadwell

The Packer

Responding to foodborne illness incidents, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture in Honolulu is launching a first-of-its-kind food safety program in the state using radio frequency identification technology.

The department's quality assurance division recently was awarded a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to finance the three-year program, which received a preliminary grant of $450,000 in May. The pilot program is expected to begin in early September, at a total estimated cost of $1.6 million.

"It's to benefit the consumers in case there is an issue with food safety," says Jeri Kahana, manager of department's commodities branch. "If there's an illness we can at least identify the location and try to remedy the problem."

Kahana says, however, that 99 percent of the nearly an estimated 5,000 growers throughout the state do not appreciate the risk of foodborne illnesses or the need to pay for the food safety study.

She says that other than monitoring small lot numbers on products from time to time, there has never been a traceback system in Hawaii before other than health department investigators interviewing those who became ill and attempting to determine patterns that might eventually lead to a potential source of contamination.

A March E. coli incident sickened eight and was linked to locally grown lettuce.

Kahana says most of the growers in Hawaii are small, operating on fewer than 6 acres. Many are recent immigrants from Southeast Asia and because of language issues and a widespread lack of appreciation for good agricultural practices or the legal and monetary consequences of a food safety incident, it has been difficult for the division to get the message for GAPs across to them.

Kahana says during the first phase of the project the division will work with grower Sugarland Farms, Kunai, and wholesale produce house Armstrong Produce of Honolulu. She says some of the grant money will also be given to the University of Hawaii to fund E. coli research.

The Packer is a sister publication of The Grower.