NEW YORK--Sushi chefs in the Big Apple are experiencing major headaches with a sanitary grading system that could penalize them for doing things the old-fashioned way--with bare hands.
The new sanitary grading system implemented two years ago covers the 24,000 or so restaurants of all types that do business in New York. Restaurants that have been inspected display colorful signs that designate whether it obtained a grade of "A," "B" or "C."
Spot checks by health department inspectors determine the final grade.
Although New York City government officials say the new system has helped to raise consumer trust in graded restaurants, sushi restaurants have major hurdles to overcome.
To maintain an A grade means a restaurant can only be penalized a maximum 13 points.
However, under the New York grading system, any restaurant in which workers handle uncooked food with their bare hands is penalized seven points. Failure to comply with instructions from inspectors could push a restaurant immediately to a C grade.
That, in turn, could lead to an immediate drop in sales as wary customers stop patronizing restaurants with a low rating.
"I cannot gain a feel for the topping unless I use my bare hands to make the sushi," said a sushi restaurant owner who trained in Japan. "It is unthinkable to use rubber gloves. Although we have taken the necessary sanitary measures, it is difficult to convince the health inspectors."
At an inspection this spring, rice used for sushi was also found to be kept at a temperature that was below city sanitary standards.
Other sushi restaurants have also expressed dissatisfaction, saying that health inspectors do not understand the history and background of such establishments.
Scott Rosenberg, the owner of Sushi Yasuda in midtown Manhattan, described one incident at a public hearing of the New York City Council held in March. A health inspector found a sushi chef using bare hands to make sushi and that led the inspector to dump a slab of "maguro" tuna costing about $10,000 (about 800,000 yen) into the garbage can and cover it with bleach.
Rosenberg said that sushi has been prepared with bare hands safely in Japan for centuries, and that while sanitary standards were necessary, greater understanding should be given to the culture and tradition surrounding the food.
However, Mayor Michael Bloomberg does not appear to be ready to compromise. In a radio address, he said that the incidence of salmonella infections were at the lowest rate in 20 years and that New Yorkers were in favor of the grading system.
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