I received an e-mail today with this picture on the left (click on the photo for full view) and a rant from Ken Love, executive director of the Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers. He says this was delivered to a Kona grocery store and it got him thinking about the conundrum facing local grocers. Love writes:
A grocery store in a competitive environment like Kona where there are four major stores within 20 minutes of each other causes a fight for survival. No matter how dedicated they are to the buy local premise, they still have to have bananas, ginger and taro to sell. Sadly, many don’t go out of their way to obtain locally grown items and prefer to simply buy from wholesalers who are the ones responsible for the imports. Sometimes when grocery store produce managers are shown locally grown alternatives, they will buy them. These wholesalers are the ones who need to be called on the carpet and must pay the price for pushing potentially dangerous produce items on our community.
There are many documented cases in Japan and some in Korea where importation of Chinese grown produce has been forbidden because of excessive pesticide residue and other dangerous chemicals coating seemingly safe food items. This testing was done by the receiving countries. Something we are supposed to do much more of. The last time I checked the government officially said they inspected 10% of the imports. Off the record I was told 3% if that.
Who ever the next governor is, there must be a new, much, much stronger agriculture department. Or it should/could be decentralized for each island and 2 in the case of the Big Island. The bottom line being that if they need money, they must charge these importers an inspection fee. It’s not something that should become a political football; it simply must be done. … These wholesalers who continue to import ginger and taro from China, papaya from Mexico, banana from Ecuador and of course avocados from California, Chili, Mexico and a few other countries should be forced to pay for these inspections before the rest of what we grow here is destroyed by the greed of a few.
He goes on to say that although it adheres to COOL (country of origin labeling) law on the signs next to the produce, consumers don’t look at the signs. Consumers look at the product.
As growers we must put Hawaii stickers on our product. Consumers looking at ginger, taro and avocados do look at the stickers. Research shows they will buy locally grown produce first – We, and the stores have to make sure they know its local.
Would stickers on the product make a difference? I’m not sure. It’s like the warning labels on cigarette packs – smokers are reminded of how bad they are every time they reach for a smoke, but they’re still going to light one up. I think there’s three key areas that drive consumer behavior in the local produce debate.
For some, buying local is a political act. People buy local produce because the money circulates around the local economy, and it keeps Hawaii’s ag land for ag.
For others, it is taste. For example, a tomato grown in Hawaii and picked ripe off the vine will taste better than any import, by virtue of not having to travel thousands of miles.
For everyone else, it will come down to price. I’ve been to the grocery store with friends and they couldn’t figure out why the local tomato always cost more than the imported tomato. I tell them there’s myriad reasons and the main ones are cheap oil and cheap labor. Until that changes, buying local will be a tough sell to the average consumer.
But back to the photo. Will branding make a difference? The state Department of Ag can certainly label all real local products, but what about products from unscrupulous companies bearing the Hawaii name? Can it be regulated?
What is sad is that a lit of people assume that if it is something that was traditionally grown here, that it must be local. Super markets do display things that were grown in Hawaii sometimes, and even when they do, it is on a very inconspicuous sign, and the local produce is displayed right next to imported produce. Supermarkets aren't the worst though. I have gone to the Hilo farmers market and asked many of the people if they grew a lot of their produce, and a lot said no. Furthermore, much of it was imported from the mainland and China (eg garlic). I once saw a vendor at the Maku'u Farmers market cutting open a bag of Costco bell peppers, cut the tops to make them look freshly picked, and lay them out as if they were local.
Ultimately, I think it is up to the consumer to ask where the food comes from since most of the retainers and distributors are mainly concerned with keeping shelves stocked and making money!