Raw fish will not singlehandedly save urban California. But it can still help.
Two years ago, Governor Jerry Brown, with an assist from the state Supreme Court, dealt a blow to urban revitalization with the dismantling of the state's redevelopment program. Redevelopment was flawed and needed reform. Even so, cities and civic-minded developers have been sorry to see it go.
Of course, real estate development alone – with or without public assistance – is just one part of the equation. Once buildings are built, someone has to occupy them.
In the inner city, perhaps the archetypal commercial tenant is the restaurant. Granted, Appleby's, Popeye's, and Pizza Hut are unhealthy in more ways than one. If we want to stoke local economies, the independent, locally owned restaurant is a great place to start. Although redevelopment agencies were not always savvy about assisting local businesses, they were surely happy when they moved in. Even more happy were the people who got hired by mom and pop.
In short, the state should be doing everything it can to promote and support independent restaurants. A new law—which, ostensibly, has nothing to do with urban development—does just the opposite.
AB 1252, sponsored by the Assembly, Committee on Health (chaired by Richard Pan, an MD and Democrat representing Sacramento) updates Section 113961 of the California Retail Food Code to require every cook and food-preparer statewide use gloves if they handle food that will not be cooked. So far, only a few chefs and restaurateurs have raised a serious outcry over the new requirement. Those that haven't cried out are probably still getting over their shock.
Covering the construction of salads, sandwiches, artisanal cocktails, and, most importantly, sushi, AB 1251 puts restaurants in league with hospitals and crime scenes. The rule acknowledges a truism of living together -- people are messy -- but this is the first instance I know of when public policy has been dictated by fear of cooties. (I also wonder if it's a coincidence that many food-preparers are non-white immigrants.)
As an aesthetic matter, sushi chefs widely insist that sushi – delicate and deliberately constructed – suffers from the use of gloves. The inevitable condom analogy has been made.
It's not hard to imagine, though, that gloves hamper the assembly of just about any cold plate. Ludo Lefbvre – who is precisely the sort of chef-entrepreneur who has helped revitalize formerly moribund neighborhoods – told the LA Times that he knows by feel how many grains of sea salt fit between his bare fingers.
Precious as Lefebvre's claim may sound, I don't question his tactile skills. Great food is precise. As any calligrapher, violist, or tailor can tell you, there's no instrument more precise than is the human hand.
This rule is designed to prevent contamination. Interestingly, not a single article I have read actually cites the incidence of contamination that stems from bare-handed food-handling. Needless to say, food preparers are already required to wash their hands assiduously. Medical professionals and culinary experts alike agree that proper hand-washing is more than sufficient to keep germs at bay. (When you're in the kitchen, what do you do?)
Then again, the L.A. Times mentions studies that find, not surprisingly, that the use of gloves can compel food preparers to slack off on basic hygiene. These are the times when moral hazards are also health hazards.
This is, in other words, a solution in search of a problem. Unless, of course, your problem is that you're not selling enough rubber gloves.
I'm sure the rubber industry is keeping its head down about this, but it's not hard to imagine that they are popping champagne and blowing up the balloons over this one. One restaurant estimates that it will spend $4,000 annually to buy 500 gloves per week thanks to AB 1251. The majority of them will end up in landfills. Now multiply that by the state's estimated 61,000 restaurants.
The California Restaurant Association (which ironically shares initials with the erstwhile California Redevelopment Association) supports this rule. The CRA's guide to the rule ominously explains, "when food handlers have not washed their hands thoroughly before handling food, harmful germs may be on their hands."
That's a big "when." Not to mention a big "may." How harmful are these germs? The CRA doesn't say. As if Cheetos, soda, and frozen pot pies are any less risky than are raw foods.
Though he's an MD, Assembly Member Pan and all other doctors should be aware of a few of the non-medical causes of death in the United States. Columbia University's Mailman School of Medicine reports that of the 245,000 premature deaths attributable to adverse social conditions, 133,000 were due to individual-level poverty. Another 39,000 were due to "area-level poverty."
The number of Americans who died from food-borne pathogens in 2010: 1,351.
The CRA's position surprised me until I realized that the CRA represents restaurant chains. Their economies of scale will make them better equipped to absorb these costs.
"Many other states have similar laws in effect, so the multi-state chains were prepared for the changes here in California," said CRA Communications Manager Angela Pappas in an e-mail to CP&DR.
As far as I know, sushi restaurants have no such lobbying power. Big chains that send their profits god-knows-where yet again gain a relative advantage over the businesses that might be owned by your friends and neighbors. If only we had an indigenous rubber industry.
Will restaurants disappear from inner-city California simply because of this law? Of course not.
Will every budding entrepreneur be deterred? Doubtful. And yet, we all know that California is not always kind to small businesses.
I hesitate to throw around the "nanny state" accusation, because many regulations are effective and necessary. This one, though, is a veritable Mary Poppins. It does the following:
- has a seemingly unimpeachable mission;
- will be ineffective;
- will imposes costs on those being regulated;
- will lower the quality of life for everyone everyone else;
- gives undo credence to invisible enemies.
And it will make it just that much harder to fill California's vacant lots.
My advice: the legislature should repeal this law. People who are too squeamish to let strangers touch their food, can stay home and eat Hungry Man. They can leave normal people to enjoy our California rolls, and our California cities, in peace.