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California and the West

Health Codes Often at Odds With Ethnic Tastes

Dining: Laws requiring that food be kept either hot or cold run afoul of tradition, especially in Asian cuisines. Merchants are caught in the middle.

September 06, 2000|DANIEL YI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a culture clash of gastronomical proportions.

From Los Angeles' Koreatown to Westminster's Little Saigon to San Francisco's Chinatown, traditional Asian dishes best served at room temperature are running afoul of state health codes that require such foods to be kept either hot or cold.

Take Korean gim bap, rice rolled in seaweed, stuffed with meat and vegetables, a variation on Japanese sushi. If refrigerated, the rice hardens. Keep it hot and it dries up.

Or goi cuon, a Vietnamese appetizer of cooked shrimp wrapped in thin rice paper. Keep it too hot and the delicate shell shrivels up, too cold and the wrap bursts. The merchants insist that such food is safe to keep at room temperature for an entire day. Some risk citations from health officials.

"I could hide the food [from inspectors], but then the customers would not ask for them," said a fast-food merchant in Little Saigon's Asian Garden Mall over a counter full of sticky rice, goi cuon and other popular Vietnamese dishes--all kept at room temperature.

"If I refrigerate, no one will eat it," said the man, who asked not to be named for fear of being cited. "I know this is America, but what are we supposed to do?"

Health officials in immigrant-heavy communities in California and elsewhere say temperature regulations are a constant source of conflict as inspectors try to apply uniform standards to hundreds of food items from around the world.

"Despite our best efforts, it is always a challenge," said Jack Breslin, San Francisco's assistant director of environmental health.

In a melting pot nation, such struggles aren't new. Polish sausages were blamed for an outbreak of trichinosis in Chicago early in the century. Mexican-style cheese contaminated by listeria was blamed for 84 deaths in California in 1985. These examples prove that widespread food poisoning is a very real risk when food is improperly prepared and stored, public health experts say.

"It is not only a potential [risk], it is inevitable," said Shirley Fannin, director of disease control for Los Angeles County's Department of Health Services.

To health officials, the issue is simple: Room temperature can allow unhealthful microbes to multiply in food and sicken consumers. The only way to be safe is to expose the food to extreme temperatures.

"Bacteria know no cultural bounds," said Allen Stroh, a program manager at the Orange County Health Care Agency. "Everybody coming from the old country, they bring their cultural baggage with them, and sometimes the baggage doesn't make good health safety sense."

But many merchants who sell ethnic food counter that such examples of outbreaks are probably the result of unsanitary food handling, which is dangerous regardless of temperature.

Health officials say food contamination is hard to trace to a specific source. Those who become ill are likely to remember only their last meal, which is not necessarily the culprit. Even when the tainted food is found, how it got contaminated is hard to trace. In the 1985 listeria outbreak linked to queso fresco, investigators were unable to find the exact source of contamination.

Temperature regulation, health officials say, is the last safeguard.

Thousands Cited Each Year

Inspectors in Los Angeles and Orange counties cite at least 2,800 food retailers for temperature violations every year. Offenses include malfunctioning refrigerators and improper thawing of meats. Some cases involved Mexican cheeses kept unrefrigerated so they remain soft, others Italian sausages hanging at room temperature in delicatessens. Many were for Asian dishes left out at room temperature.

In Orange County, the issue came to a boil earlier this year when a group of Vietnamese American restaurant and market owners demanded a meeting with health officials they said were unfairly targeting their businesses. The meeting in March calmed tensions, but the impasse continues.

The law isn't aimed at Asian fare. It requires "all potentially hazardous food" to be kept cold (at or below 41 degrees Fahrenheit) or hot (at or above 140 degrees). That includes most staples, such as rice, beans, meats and dairy products, which can harbor bacteria. High acidity and low humidity also can keep bacteria from multiplying to dangerous levels.

Merchants often are willing to compromise a little on culinary tradition to avoid trouble with health inspectors. They will refrigerate the food even if it is not ideal, or adjust recipes to make the food bacteria-proof. But many Asian dishes consistently clash with the law.

Unlike Mexican-style cheese, Italian prosciutto or ceviche (raw fish marinated in lime or lemon), Asian food merchants say the dishes for which they are cited would be rendered inedible at extreme temperatures.

"With Asian items it is more of an issue," agreed Terrance Powell, Los Angeles County's chief environmental health specialist. "Maybe it is the tenacity on the part of that community or maybe their products are not as adaptable to the code."

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