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NY Restaurants Sour on Rules Over Kimchi

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http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001...

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  1. I don't know how it all works, but surely some new regulation for exceptions could be made specifically for the millenia old fermentation and storage process that produces kimchi.

    10 Replies
    1. re: luckyfatima

      It would be nice.

      However, there are far too many people who are just hysterical and sanctimonious about leaving food out for more than 4 hours above 40/41ºF - and the "authorities" write regulations to cover the absolutely worse-case scenario their lawyers and scientists can dream of.

      There's a thread on "General Topics" relating to this "food safety" issue where the Volunteers finally deleted a swath of posts that verged on being shrill (from proponents of chucking stuff out) to exasperated rebuttals from saner-minded (IMO) folks.

      1. re: huiray

        The problem is that everyone seems to want a hard fast rule, and then objects to one when it's offered.

        Sometimes, leaving food unrefrigerated for over 4 hours is dangerous. Many other times it's not. Depends on the actual temperature, the food in question, the likelihood of exposure to various pathogens, and the medium in which the foodstuff is held (usually, that medium is air).

        The topic repeatedly degenerates because the 'it's fine' camp refuses to acknowledge that there is any solid basis for the rule at all, whereas the 'stickler' camp refuses to admit that there are more exceptions to the rule than there are cases where the rule truly applies in the strictest sense.

      2. re: luckyfatima

        Crafting special exceptions to a general set of laws is a bad idea; the arguments over which foods are sufficiently old or traditional are unwinnable. The better approach is recognize that there are multiple approaches to the goals which food safety laws are trying to meet. The rationale behind keeping food out of the danger zone of 40-140°F for long periods is to inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria. But refrigeration is not the only method to meet that goal. As the author of the linked article points out kimchi is a very acidic food (pH ≤ 4.6); its acidity protects it from bacterial growth. The law in New York needs to be expanded to recognize other methods of preservation besides refrigeration but which can be measured just as easily and objectively as a temperature, thus avoiding nebulous determinations of whether a food preparation method is old enough or traditional enough to deserve an exception.

        1. re: kmcarr

          "The rationale behind keeping food out of the danger zone of 40-140°F for long periods is to inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria. But refrigeration is not the only method to meet that goal. As the author of the linked article points out kimchi is a very acidic food (pH ≤ 4.6); its acidity protects it from bacterial growth."
          _________
          A bit of nit-picking: The idea in making kimchi isn't to kill all bacteria, but to set up an environment that is highly selective for a certain type of bacteria. Initially, the pH of kimchi ingredients is not low. The amount of salt along with the holding temperature makes the pre-fermented kimchi a hostile environment for most bacteria but a hospitable one for specific lactic acid producers. These bacteria are not dangerous to ingest. They reproduce to a saturation point and then secrete lactic acid as their own way of further inhibiting the growth of competing bacteria. That lactic acid is what drops the pH of kimchi below 4.6. But the problem for regulators is that the combined ingredients aren't initially that acidic, and the regulations don't account for that.

          Restaurant health inspectors usually aren't equipped to deal with or even understand the real complexities of food safety. No offense to any inspectors out there, but you don't exactly need a PhD to do it. There's not really even much specialized training for it, AFAIK. Rather, they're there to err on the side of safety and prevent a public health crisis. Unfortunately, that means some perfectly safe techniques such as kimchi making may come under fire until regulations account for said technique and inspectors come to understand it a little better.

          Getting inspectors to wrap their minds around sous vide cooking, which often cooks foods entirely in the "danger zone," has been reported to be quite an uphill battle in some places.

          1. re: cowboyardee

            "Restaurant health inspectors usually aren't equipped to deal with or even understand the real complexities of food safety. No offense to any inspectors out there, but you don't exactly need a PhD to do it. There's not really even much specialized training for it, AFAIK. "
            ______

            That may be the case in NYC, but for much of the country, the above statement is simply not true. You are correct that it doesn't take a PhD to do the job, but in most states, inspectors are required to be either Registered Environmental Health Specialists or Certified Food Safety Professionals. The minimum qualification to even sit for the REHS exam is a bachelor's degree with at least 30 semester hours of sciences. Most inspectors have specialized training beyond that.

            Restaurant health inspectors generally DO understand the complexities of food safety. The operators don't. Yes, they may be using a recipe that's been passed down for 500 years, but that doesn't mean that if the recipe isn't followed correctly that something won't go wrong. That's where the understanding of food preparation techniques comes into play... In a perfect world, inspectors would know the right questions to ask, operators would be brave enough to provide honest answers, and a respectful dialogue could take place to figure out what the solution to any percieved "problem" should be. In the real world, attitudes, egos, politics, and fear tend to get in the way of that.

            I absolutely agree that the regulators need to have a certain level of competency in what they're doing. However, the operators also need to respect that an inspector might *not* know every little nuance of every establishment's menu. A lot of “new/old” techniques *are* unfamiliar to many inspectors, especially those who started in the business in the last 10-15 years. Most mainstream restaurants weren’t making things like kimchi and confit and charcuterie from scratch... those items were coming out of a Sysco truck. The restaurants that *were* doing it were helmed by chefs who actually had classical training in these techniques, which usually had built-in food safety checks. With the uptick in local/slow/heritage preparation techniques over the last few years, it seems like every “chef” in town is trying to out-do the others with the newest/craziest/oldest technique for bragging rights. If they got their line training at the local Applebees and their recipes from the internet, they may not know the hazards involved…

            There are a lot of inspectors out there who are more than willing to work with the operators to get them where they need to be, in line with the food safety requirements. And admittedly, there are some inspectors who are on a power trip. Both sides need to be willing to cooperate if food safety is ever going to move forward.

            1. re: blue_skiesMN

              Good points made on the behalf of the Inspectors. However, in my experience there are still too many inspectors out there who are clueless. Anyone with geology,math,health education,community health etc. can study and pass an REHS exam, but they don't necessarily understand the food microbiology or food chemistry I agree it is better than an inspector without any science background at all! I have met inspectors REHS who do not know the basic difference between a virus and and bacteria! A good inspector not only have the right education,more importantly the right judgement and understand public health significance. When inspectors are not certain, many inspectors have to check with their superiors who are equally clueless but have the authority and power to say ultimately "this is what the Code says". I hear stories from operators who wanted to get their HACCP plans approved by the local Health Inspector. When owner ask for clarification of HACCP plans from these educated professionals he has to check with a supervisor first, then check with the State, then the FDA and finally ask for more of paperwork. No clear answers, yet the so called"unsafe" processes have been going on for years! Don't the educated health inspector have the authority or knowledge to get these processes approved?No wonder the retail food community is frustrated with those regulators who do not truly understand the public health significance!

              1. re: blue_skiesMN

                I'm not trying to be hard on food inspectors. I don't mean to imply that they know less than chefs and restaurant owners, as a rule. However, I don't think that just having a BS necessarily means you know anything much about food safety. I have a BS myself - what I know of food safety, I've learned on my own time.

                As I implied above, I don't think the public is much interested in paying to employ a real expert in food safety to inspect restaurant kitchens. I'm sure that many inspectors, to their credit, go out of their way to learn the science behind their fields. But in reality, there are still going to be a lot of inspectors who either don't have the knowledge to understand situations that fall outside those in their manual (such as kimchi) or don't feel comfortable making exceptions even when they understand that a food is completely safe.

                This is just one example of many I've heard. Cooking sous vide is still very difficult in some cities, despite being comparably safe (or even more so) to traditional methods. Friends on another forum have told me about the difficulties in getting inspectors to overlook carbon steel knives, even when they are very well maintained. At the same time, erring on the side of safety helps prevents public health crises, so I understand why some very safe processes and techniques are harder to get past inspectors than they might be.

                1. re: cowboyardee

                  You're absolutely right. Having a BS doesn't mean much, other than you've managed to get a diploma (the REHS exam was tougher than most of my undergrad classes). It does become tiresome, however, to constantly hear (please excuse the hyperbole) that inspectors are knuckle-dragging cretins who don't know the difference between a pork chop and a hot dog.

                  As in any profession, there are some individuals who excel and some individuals who deserve to be fired - and who probably should have never been hired in the first place. Unfortunately, the political and social climate only continues to get worse for public servants, including most health inspectors. Administrators are concerned about inspection numbers, not inspection quality. The time allowed for inspector training, not to mention outreach and troubleshooting, diminishes year after year. Many “good” inspectors leave the field after a few years, after seeing the burnout that can occur with shrinking budgets and growing workloads. Of course, there are the burnouts, the checklist inspectors, those watching the clock tick towards retirement… And in those cases, it’s the industry’s responsibility to call the inspectors out on their bad behavior. But for the most part, the inspectors I know (and yes, full disclosure, I am one too) really are concerned about public health. And if it seems that they are being overly cautious, it is because they want to *try* to get things right the first time. Nobody in the field wants to reinforce the pervasive opinion that inspectors are uneducated morons. And I know that you didn’t explicitly say that, but I’ve heard it a million times.

                  Many of the old/new techniques can be done absolutely safely. It’s just a matter of identifying the risk factors, finding where the procedures fit into the regulations, and following through. This is where the disproportionate relationship between industry and inspector has really made a mess of things. If every inspection could conclude with the inspector and the operator sitting down to share a couple of beers and talk about the inspection, the world would be a much different place.

                  *and the point about sous vide being complicated and comparably safe… yes, and no. It’s safe if it’s done correctly. If not, it could lead to very serious illness or death. The cooking process is pretty safe, it’s what happens to the food afterwards… but that’s another thread for another day.

                  1. re: blue_skiesMN

                    *and the point about sous vide being complicated and comparably safe… yes, and no. It’s safe if it’s done correctly. If not, it could lead to very serious illness or death. The cooking process is pretty safe, it’s what happens to the food afterwards… but that’s another thread for another day.
                    ______
                    You'll find few bigger sous vide enthusiasts on this site than me. In a lot of ways, it's led me to my interest in food safety. In terms of safety, it's all a matter of how you look at it. Yes, sous vide can be dangerous when post-cooking storage or low temperature cooking is employed. But when you think about it, the same thing is true of traditional methods (ok, I know sous vide also presents a unique opportunity for c. botulinum when used poorly, but traditional cooking has its specific risks as well). Mainly, it's just that sous vide allows you to do some things safely (or more safely) that would be unwise with traditional methods. If you cook to similar doneness, and serve food similarly quick after cooking, sous vide is almost unquestionably as safe or safer than traditional techniques, from a bacterial perspective.

                    So whether you call that safer or less safe depends on how you look at it. Personally, I think it's pretty comparable, just newer and less familiar.

                    1. re: cowboyardee

                      It's the specific risk of botulism if not handled correctly after the cook stop that is a problem - a big one. You're knowledgeable about the risks and how to build safety into it, but there are plenty of people who are not. The folks who think they can just throw their perfectly sous vide beef tenderloin in the refrigerator (which in all likelihood isn't running at the right temp to begin with) - or as I've actually encountered - on a shelf at room temp - for as long as they want... Those are the operators we're concerned about, and yes - they are out there.

                      Thanks for the respectful feedback.

        2. The bottom line is people who enforce regulations have to have a certain level of competency in what they're doing. If they don't know that kimchee's pH level means that the regulations they are trying to apply to kimchee are not the right application of the food science behind the regulation, they shoudn't be out in the field inspecting Korean restaurants. When they put people out in the field who follow insection guidelines so rigidly, without understanding the food, that means you have to write so many exceptions and special cases into the regulations that the regulations become unmanageable. The solution is to have inspectors with more technical competency about food science & the food they are inspecting.

          4 Replies
          1. re: AsperGirl

            I have a friend who related to me once about how an FDA inspector looking over the pharmaceutical plant he was in charge of objected to the designated pH of a process (pH 6-7) as being "too high" and wanted the pH to be brought down to a lower number, like 0 or 1.

            1. re: huiray

              0 or 1??? Maybe he thought he was in the lead acid battery plant!

              1. re: AsperGirl

                IIRC from what my friend said, that part of the process the inspector objected to called for the reaction to be neutralized to a pH of about 7 or at least above 6. The inspector thought that number was too high. :-)

                1. re: huiray

                  As someone who deals in pH measurement for a living, I am currently scraping my jaw off the floor. And no, I am not a PhD. I don't have any degree in science at all. What I do have a fair amount of common sense and a lot of on the job training. Holy acids and bases, Batman! This isn't rocket science.