By Andrew Gomes
Don’t stop eating your (local) veggies.
That’s the message from the state Department of Health after reports of local farm revenue declines and some retailers opting to carry only mainland produce over fear of rat lungworm disease.
“It’s a behavior issue — it’s not a food supply problem,” said Peter Oshiro, head of the department’s sanitation branch, in an interview Friday. “There’s no higher risk at all with buying local produce, period.”
Hawaii farmers, however, are taking a hit from consumers and some retailers who believe it is safer not to deal with local produce. The Maui News reported that Whole Foods Market on Maui is currently using greens and lettuces from only the mainland for all prepared food items “out of an abundance of caution.”
“We are closely monitoring this issue and working with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture to develop a plan that allows us to continue to support local agriculture while ensuring the safety of our customers and team members,” the Maui News quoted Whole Foods public relations official Janette Rizk as saying.
Representatives of Whole Foods did not get back to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser about its reported response and whether other stores have adopted similar policies.
Max Bowman, operator of Anoano Farms on Hawaii island, said his sales are down about 10 percent recently, largely because wholesale accounts have cut back in response to some hotels and restaurants not wanting to buy local — something he doesn’t resent because people have become very ill. “It’s a logical response,” he said.
Rat lungworm isn’t new to Hawaii. It’s existed here for 50 years and is a parasitic worm in rats that can infect snails, slugs, freshwater shrimp, land crabs and frogs that ingest rat feces containing the worm larvae.
The main danger of transmission to people is eating uncooked or unwashed food containing an infected animal, which can result in the parasite, Angiostrongylus cantonensis, infecting a person’s brain and causing damage that can range from headaches to a rare type of meningitis.
There is no medical treatment for rat lungworm, but most patients recover fully, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Since 2007 more than 50 people in Hawaii have contracted the disease in Hawaii, including two who died.
In less then four months this year, there have been 11 confirmed cases here — all on Hawaii island and Maui. That compares with 11 for all of last year, and a long-term annual average of nine.
Oshiro, however, pointed out that where rat lungworm in this year’s cases originated is unknown, and that two cases involved people who drank kava from a bowl that had been left out overnight. A slug was discovered at the bottom of the bowl after it was emptied.
Scott Enright, director of the state Department of Agriculture, said the case of a vacationing honeymoon couple contracting rat lungworm this year involved kale smoothies bought from a roadside stand in Hana.
“We’ve never been able to confirm a case of rat lungworm coming from commercial agriculture,” he said.
The solution to avoiding rat lungworm, Oshiro said, is simply rinsing fruits and vegetables well under running water to dislodge any carriers, which can include slugs only a few millimeters big, about the size of Thomas Jefferson’s ponytail on a nickel.
That’s it. No soap or other solutions are necessary, he said, adding that rinsing produce also washes away dirt and other potentially harmful things.
Eating lettuce that has been crossed by a slug isn’t enough to make someone sick, Oshiro added. “You pretty much have to ingest the slug.”
So avoiding local produce from a supermarket or restaurant won’t necessarily help.
Dean Okimoto, owner of Nalo Farms on Oahu, said he’s perturbed by suggestions that consumers should buy mainland produce. “This stuff is on the mainland, too,” he said.
The CDC didn’t have rat lungworm case data by state on its information page about the disease, but noted that the parasite is found in Texas and Louisiana. The agency said “very few” cases have been reported on the mainland.
Kit Kalajakawan, co-owner of Maui Nui Farm, said he tries to explain to consumers who visit his 40-acre farm that they don’t have to fear rat lungworm if they wash their produce. Yet they still tell him they are afraid and opt not to buy things like lettuce and kale.
“People don’t understand,” he said.
Another Maui farmer was fearful that even mentioning his farm’s name in this story would hurt business even though no Hawaii farm has been linked with rat lungworm infections. “We’ve been pushing ‘buy local’ for 20 years, and now all of a sudden everybody wants mainland (produce),” he said. “I eat my produce. I eat it, and I feed it to my kids daily.”
Okimoto of Nalo Farms said farmers can implement practices that combat vectors for rat lungworm, including rat controls and slug bait. At his farm, he said, he also uses a sanitizer bath with agitated action to clean greens.
Local natural-food store Down to Earth said it decided to buy lettuce from only Hawaii farms that confirm they use rat and snail controls. The retailer also produced and posted flyers on social media and in its stores to educate customers about washing produce.
Foodland Super Market, which also is creating signs about washing fruits and vegetables, said it is being extra vigilant about thoroughly inspecting every produce shipment, and rinses greens at least three times with shaking between each rinse.
“Supporting local farmers is as important to us as it is to our customers, and we want those who shop with us to feel they are able to buy local with confidence,” said company spokeswoman Sheryl Toda.
Published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser April. 22, 2017.