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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 8, 2003

O'ahu irradiator possible

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i — The state Department of Agriculture is encouraging private operators to build a commercial-scale irradiator near Honolulu airport to allow Hawai'i farmers to treat and export more produce to the Mainland.

Hawai'i Pride LLC's Eric Weinert explains the workings of the company's irradiator on the Big Island. The state is encouraging development of a similar facility on O'ahu.

Kevin Dayton • The Honolulu Advertiser

Lyle Wong, plant industry administrator for the agriculture department, declined to identify the companies considering the project, and said no site has been selected yet. He said the project may be two to three years away.

Currently the only irradiator used to process Hawai'i produce for export is in Kea'au on the Big Island. Hawai'i Pride LLC opened in 2000, and this year will process 4 million to 5 million pounds of papaya and other fruit for export, said Eric Weinert, Hawai'i Pride senior vice president for sales and marketing.

The $9 million Big Island facility uses X-rays to penetrate food and packaging to sterilize any fruit flies hiding inside. Federal regulations then allow the fruit to be shipped to the Mainland.

Larry Jefts, operator of Larry Jefts Farm on O'ahu, said an O'ahu irradiator would immediately open up a niche market supplying produce to kitchens that make passenger meals for the airlines.

Currently that market is closed to Jefts because of concerns that fruit flies might hitch a ride out of Hawai'i on the planes, he said.

If an irradiator were available to eliminate the fruit fly threat, Jefts said he could sell tomatoes, bell peppers and possibly cucumbers to the kitchens that they now import from California and Mexico.

"That's a ready-made market, here we are," said Jefts. "That would be the very first day, that's how I would try to use the irradiator. I believe that the economics all pencil out."

Although airline kitchen produce consumption is small — Jefts estimated he might sell a few extra pallets of produce a week to the kitchens — he said he would also look to exporting to the Mainland.

Jefts said there may be some "seasonal fits" where Hawai'i produce could compete with Mainland prices when products from other areas are scarce. One possibility would be to ship tomatoes to the Pacific Northwest at certain times of the year, he said.

Jefts' farm has been operating for 25 years, and now grows a variety of crops including tomatoes, watermelon, peppers, cucumbers, bananas and chinese cabbage on land on O'ahu and Moloka'i.

Wong discussed the proposal for the new O'ahu facility during a tour of the Kea'au irradiator Friday with U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary William T. Hawks.

Hawks toured farms and other facilities on O'ahu and the Big Island last week and met with Gov. Linda Lingle Thursday before touring the Hawai'i Pride irradiator Friday.

Wong said a new irradiation facility will soon be needed on O'ahu to sterilize large quantities of fruit flies as part of an expanding USDA program to eradicate fruit fly populations in parts of the Mainland.

The USDA has a fruit fly rearing facility in Waimanalo, where pre-adult fruit fly pupae are irradiated and sterilized, and then shipped to the Mainland for release in areas where there there is a threat of fruit fly infestation. The infertile males compete with fertile males to mate with females, but the sterilized males produce infertile eggs thereby reducing the number of new fruit flies.

The federal government will demolish the Waimanalo facility and then rebuild and expand it so it can produce 400 million flies per week, Wong said. But the two small irradiators USDA uses on O'ahu cannot efficiently handle that volume, he said.

The plan is to have a new irradiator built that can accommodate both the workload from the USDA fruit fly program and commercial traffic from O'ahu, Maui, Moloka'i and Kaua'i farmers who want to export their products, Wong said.

"That interest is already there," Wong said. "There has been interest in putting a second (commercial) irradiator on O'ahu, so we have been involved in discussions with those that have had that interest in doing it from the very beginning."

Wong said the irradiator could use X-rays in a system similar to the Kea'au facility, or could be a cobalt irradiator. "That hasn't been decided," he said.

A proposal to build a cobalt irradiator on the Big Island stirred intense debate and a ballot initiative in 1998, with voters that year narrowly defeating a proposal to amend the county code to prohibit radioactive material in commercial irradiation facilities.

Isomedix, the company that had hoped to build the Big island irradiator, did not follow through with the project, and Hawai'i Pride developed the Kea'au X-ray irradiator instead.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 935-3916.