Of mice and menace

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

Publisher’s note: Baktalk is a new regular column by Beth-Ann Kozlovich, host of Hawaii Public Radio’s Town Square.

HONOLULU—They’re cute in the video. They leap from boxes to bananas and mug for the camera. They almost look like they’re performing and want you to watch. But they are rats, not trained animals, and the location is the Kekaulike marketplace in Honolulu’s Chinatown.

Since November when he shot and uploaded his video to YouTube, Larry Geller has earned the title of Ratman. Geller is a citizen journalist and online publisher of Disappeared News. He says he was prodded by a friend to see and record the ratty antics clearly visible through a window. Almost 30,000 viewers have seen the video online—thousands more have seen snippets in newscasts and Geller has even received email from France.

“They were studying food safety, this was an example,” he says. There have been rat cartoons and rodent allusions all throughout Hawaiʻi media. Forget Chinese astrology, by the end of 2009, it became the year of the rat.

Rats are not a new issue, yet there is something about this video that captures the imagination beyond the graphic rat show and what it represents. That it took a guy with a little camera late at night to shine some light on a long standing problem says a lot. That fingers are being pointed all the way ‘round says a lot more. While merchants clean up and the state Department of Health (DOH) educates, the question remains: who really is responsible for public health and food safety?

Lawrence Lau, Deputy Director for Environmental Health at the DOH, says his department is challenged by budget cuts that have sliced the number of inspectors in the vector control branch from 53 prior to this year to the current 15. There are 9 sanitation field inspectors who look at restaurants and places where food is sold. But he says the Chinatown situation is more than just a product of not having enough inspectors.

Lack of funds means no overtime, so no night shift inspections when nocturnal rats surface. Budget constraints also translate into the necessity for education and training classes delivered by third parties using DOH materials, which Lau says is key.

“Education and getting the seller and the property owner to take responsibility, which they have and which we think is primary, is in the long run more effective,” Lau says. “Even if we quadrupled our staff or had ten times as many inspectors, with 5,700 food establishments on the island, there is no way we’re going to be everywhere all the time.”

Geller agrees education is important. He suggests the landlord should have the combined responsibility for inspection and education, privately contract these functions and then file the reports with the DOH. Geller also thinks a possibility might be to give inspectors the authority to call a landlord for surprise inspections at different hours of the day or evening with the landlord in attendance—but that would also mean inspectors would have to be available at those hours.

In the case of the Kekaulike marketplace, the landlord had contracted with a pest control company, though the effort to contain the rats was obviously not effective. Lau says there is a new plan which the DOH has reviewed.

KITV News reporter Keoki Kerr, who has followed sanitation issues including this one, says the pest control company didn’t do its job and that tenants had been quietly complaining. So why didn’t we see them on camera?

“They’re scared of getting evicted,” Kerr says. “Their landlord is jacking up the rent on them. They’re scared to complain about a rat problem because they don’t want to get kicked out.”

While the Chinatown rats have galvanized attention on food safety issues, Kerr is quick to point out that the health violations, which get people really sick and even kill, are far more routine: Refrigeration units which are working improperly to keep meat and milk products cold enough plus lavatory functionality and employee hand-washing issues. These, he says, take inspectors to identify and that means more money for government.

Last legislative session, Representative Marcus Oshiro’s proposal to raise annual restaurant fees from $52 to $300 would have doubled the number of inspectors on Oʻahu. It would also have provided for the conversion of the current manual reporting process to an online format accessible to consumers. Another provision would have created a public rating system to demonstrate a restaurant’s inspection status. Although the measure passed both State House and Senate, it was vetoed by Governor Lingle and there were not enough votes to override her veto. Lau says the reason for the veto was the Administration’s philosophy that raising taxes was inappropriate for recessionary times.

Lau says he’d love to have more money for his department, but times being what they are, choices have to be made, priorities ranked and publicly supported. Core government functions should be clearly identifiable—and there’s the ratty rub. Are we able to distinguish where personal responsibility ends and government’s begins? Have we grown so dependent on all government that we cannot assess what core functions are? You can ponder that on the next Furlough Friday and get back to me.

Beth-Ann Kozlovich is the Talk Shows Executive Producer and host of Town Square now in its 11th year at Hawaii Public Radio.