By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer
Budget cuts have left California with fewer inspectors and made that state more prone to slap sanctions on importers when pests are discovered. Hawai’i may also lose inspectors if the state lays off workers in November as planned to balance its budget.
Five key agricultural officials sent a warning letter this month to hundreds of Hawai’i growers and shippers who sell flowers, foliage, herbs, vegetables, potted nursery products and fruit, alerting them to the potential risk of not cleaning up their shipments.
"Anyone that currently ships to California can be the ‘last straw’ that triggers the decision by California to impose severe restrictions on the movement of all products from Hawai’i into the California market," the letter states.
Those severe restrictions could include enhanced inspection requirements that will further delay the release of fragile fresh products into markets, a requirement for specific treatments for high-risk products, or bans on some shipments entirely, officials said.
The potential layoff of Hawai’i agricultural inspectors would worsen a bad situation, said Susan Matsushima, chief executive of Alluvion farm near Hale’iwa. Of the 118 state Department of Agriculture workers targeted for layoffs, she said, 52 are inspectors.
And that would likely send a message to California that, lacking 52 inspectors, Hawai’i products would be more at risk than ever of having unwanted insects.
The warning letter suggests an active plan of education, cooperation and increased safeguards to clean up these agricultural products.
"We need to pull back and make sure we do a good job," said Eric Tanouye, who raises and ships tropical flowers at Green Point Nurseries in Hilo. "In the end, this will make our industry stronger."
Hawai’i pests that have turned up in shipments to California include: nettle caterpillars, little fire ants, light brown apple moths, coqui frogs and Asian citrus psyllids.
Currently, regulations allow some self-inspection of products, which helps speed shipment. But when inspections in California uncover insects, that endangers the self-inspection practice, according to federal and state officials.
One of those who signed the letter to growers is Lyle Wong, administrator of the state Department of Agriculture’s plant industry division.
"There’s a bad situation developing here," Wong said. If Hawai’i products become known as pest-infested, they’re likely to face quarantine and inspection problems, he said.
"You may not be able to ship to California if this continues," he said.
"It’s terrible," said Matsushima at Alluvion. But she remains hopeful that everyone in her industry will get the word and pull together to keep exports "clean" of insects.
Wong said California has always been pretty tough about imports but is especially vigilant as an entry point for the rest of the continental U.S. and as protector of its own agricultural industries, especially grape and citrus crops.
California has seen its funding for pest prevention drop to a fraction of what it was.
"We are considered high risk because we have fruit flies in Hawai’i," Wong added.
He recalls a pallet of 1,800 pounds of rambutan, irradiated on the Big Island and shipped from Hilo to California, where an ant walking on the outside of the box prompted inspectors there to reject it, which cost the farmer at least $8,500 worth of fruit plus other expenses and lost revenue.
Tanouye of Green Point Nurseries is president of the Hawaii Florists and Shippers Association and said he’s seen the vibrant business growing even during difficult economic times.
Tanouye said bugs have turned up in cut flowers and foliage — not in an isolated case or two, but throughout the industry, especially with flowers that have places for bugs to hide, such as bird of paradise, ginger and heliconia, as well as palms and monstera.
"Everyone is challenged with this responsibility of being pest free," Tanouye said, especially in a business with a premium on freshness.
Reach Robbie Dingeman at firstname.lastname@example.org.