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Food fight waged over refrigeration of Asian noodles

Manufacturers unite against a California law that prohibits the pasta from being kept at room temperature, saying it ignores a long-held cultural tradition. Public health officials cite safety.

October 02, 2009|Ching-Ching Ni

For 25 years, the Lucky K.T. Noodle Factory in El Monte has been making fresh rice noodles for hundreds of Asian restaurants and supermarkets in Los Angeles and around the country.

But a state law requiring manufacturers to refrigerate the pasta instead of allowing it to be stored at room temperature threatens to alter a long-held Asian tradition, said factory owner Tom Thong.

"The health inspectors don't understand our culture," said Thong, 53. "We've been eating it this way for thousands of years and we've never had a problem. Everyone from Southeast Asia knows that if you put the noodles in the refrigerator, it would be ruined."

The issue first came to light when a San Francisco noodle factory was recently cited by state inspectors for violating the law, which requires that such food be kept either at or below 41 degrees or at or above 140 degrees, said state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco). A portion of the factory was shut down and nine people lost their jobs, he said.

Now Yee and a group of Asian business owners have joined forces to demand a change in the law.

"We still have an antiquated state code that allows state inspectors to come into any shop to tell them to throw the noodles away," Yee said Thursday at a news conference at a Monterey Park restaurant. "We've got to change the behavior of the inspectors rather than change our culture."

But health officials say it's a matter of public safety.

"Ethnic foods are not treated any differently than other foods," said Ralph Montano, spokesman for the California Department of Public Health. "Food produced without appropriate temperature controls can result in serious illnesses."

Montano said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reviewed the San Francisco factory's product and agreed that it posed an unacceptable risk to consumers as currently manufactured. He said federal law would also apply in the case and would probably be used against the company.

But Yee said there have been no reports of illness from eating Asian noodles and that independent tests have verified that the traditional preparation is not harmful.

Jacklyn Sher, manager of H.C. Foods, a food importer based in the city of Commerce, said that the controversy stems from a misunderstanding of how noodles are used and consumed.

"If we refrigerate the rice noodle, it becomes hard and brittle," she said. "It's like bread. You sell bread on the shelf. It's not refrigerated. If it is refrigerated, you know it's not fresh."

Such culture clashes are not new. A few years ago, state health officials asked Asian bakeries in Orange County to refrigerate moon cakes -- made of bean paste, egg yolks and nuts -- in order to avoid buildup of harmful bacteria. But business owners fought back, saying that storing the popular sweet treats in a refrigerator would turn them into inedible "hockey pucks."

Even celebrity chef Martin Yan, of the award-winning cooking program "Yan Can Cook," has weighed in on the noodle controversy. Yan recently joined Yee at a news conference in Daly City to support a change in the law.

"He's helped us bring attention to the issue because he knows the long tradition of the food," said Adam J. Keigwin, Yee's chief of staff. "He's cooked with it on his shows and he's been very successful at bringing Asian food culture to the mainstream."

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ching-ching.ni@latimes.com

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