Restaurants and Health Inspectors: The Great Kimchi Debate

City health inspections have been notoriously harsh on restaurants with rules about food safety, often citing them for mere technicalities. This issue has been seen increasingly in Korean restaurants, where restaurant owners claim that health inspectors do not understand the traditional preparation processes of kimchi, a staple food in Korean cuisine.

Duck Hyang restaurant in Queens recently got five violation points for the way they store kimchi, leaving it at room temperature and above the Department of Health’s 41-degree temperature requirement for cold foods. The kimchi was not labeled, so inspectors could not tell how long it has been out of cold storage. These points now hold even more weight since restaurants must now publicly post the letter grade they have received which corresponds to their inspection scores. Kimchi is classified as a potentially hazardous prepared cold food, and thus it must be stored at a temperature below 41 degrees.

Restaurant owners claim that the health inspectors don’t understand what kimchi is. According to the health commissioner’s office, Korean restaurants do not get penalized during the fermentation process of the kimchi, but after it’s made it must be handled under department specifications that cold, potentially hazardous food cannot be kept out for longer than six hours or in temperature above 70 degrees.

However those in the restaurant industry make the argument that kimchi should not be classified as a potentially hazardous food at all.

“The problem is kimchi is not supposed to be a hazardous food because the kimchi has acidity below 4.6,” said Chongwon K. Cho, a sanitation consultant for restaurants who earlier worked for the health department.

This issue was first raised by Korean groups in a forum in Flushing in late October, as they questioned Mayor Bloomberg about the situation. Ms. Cho has followed up by submitting 90 samples of different types of kimchi to a lab, which will be submitted to the health department. The purpose of this test is to determine that kimchi has an acidity level of below 4.6. The health department has already said restaurant operators can prove that the pH level of their kimchi is below 4.6 to avoid the time and temperature rules, but restaurant owners remain dubious about whether they would have the time or means of using a pH meter to perform acidity tests.

After the Flushing forum, health inspectors declared as a rule of thumb they would not cite kimchi for violations. However many Korean restaurants are still receiving violations, and Ja-Boon Kwak, owner of Kang Suh restaurant and chairwoman of the Committee for the Globalization of Korean Food said, “Traditionally-prepared kimchi has been a staple of Korean food for thousands of years and has proven to have many health benefits. By fining restaurants for the way kimchi—and other fermented foods are prepared, the Health Department is essentially forcing us to dissolve and ancient practice that is at the core of Korean cuisine.”

The Health Department has faced similar objections to the way Chinese restaurants hang ducks and even how pizza parlors prepare their slices. Though they have been loosening up their rules, they still require all food to be closely monitored and temperatures recorded when left out. With restaurants under pressure from so many fronts, the Health Department needs to allow some degree of leniency in how they hand out violations. Particularly now that letter grades must be posted on the doors of these establishments, the government must make it a priority to help these restaurants out, and prevent even more of them from closing their doors permanently.

DailyFoodtoEat is the official blog of FoodtoEat, a sustainable online food ordering and concierge catering service featuring your favorite restaurants, food trucks and caterers. Check out the deliciousness here:

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