Sunday, March 19, 2006

Safety rules. Already.

If a tree falls in the forest, does it pose a danger? Unless the government certifies it as safe, you’d better believe it, say the watchdogs of public well-being in New York City. Heck, without guidelines in place to avert potential harm, it shouldn’t be permitted to happen. This is a situation in need of regulation!

Okay, health officials might not have used those exact words. But it’s virtually their rationale for the regulatory about-face that had some of New York’s top-name chefs cussing like libertarians from Idaho last week. One day they’re preparing meals using sous vide, the decades-old technique of sealing foods in air-tight pouches to preserve the flavor and freshness until the contents can be re-heated and served. The next, they’re being told they can no longer do it because it’s not sufficiently regulated, and hence poses an acute public danger.

Mind you, it’s not as if New Yorkers were staggering out of WD-50 or Daniel to toss their foie gras and flag down an ambulance. As far as we’ve been able to determine in covering the matter, there’s not been a single incident of someone getting ill in the city because of sous vide. The practitioners could not have adopted that prep method lightly, given the technological requirements. And these are some of the world’s leading culinarians, professionals who presumably know far more about food and its qualities than a person who joined the health department because he or she couldn’t pass the NYPD entry exam. They’re well-versed in the standards and techniques that have been used for generations in Europe, where sous vide is nearly as commonplace as the garlic press.

What seems to have roused health officials is not any evidence of public danger, but the lack of civic regulations. The food-safety code for restaurants covers traditional prep methods, not this extension into ungoverned territory. And if there aren’t rules saying what can or can’t be done, these lifelong, highly trained, profoundly knowledgeable food handlers have complete freedom to do something wrong. In the minds of the officials, safety equals regulation; lack of regulation means intolerable risk. They can’t believe that professionals will act in a safe manner out of choice, rather than from the fear of being sanctioned. In other words, you’ll do wrong unless laws force you to right.

In fairness, I should point out that the officials’ main gripe is with the sous vide treatment some chefs are giving raw ingredients, a variation not used in Europe. Yet, at the very least, why didn’t the regulators just suspend that variation until standards and safeguards could be put in place? Instead they’ve advised chefs to halt the practice altogether until a HACCP plan is drafted and submitted by the restaurant for each food it prepares sous vide.

Doing it takes a great deal of time and money. No wonder some chefs are just ignoring the ban, at least until outside experts can complete the HACCP plans and submit them for approval. They figure the $300 fine is a risk worth taking. We learned that firsthand when a bunch of us went to dinner at a Manhattan restaurant as a colleague was still researching a story on the topic. On the menu of the place where we ate: A sous vide lamb entrée, explicitly described as such.

It wasn’t clear if the proprietor kept the item on the menu because of economic considerations, or as a protest against muddled government thinking. Either way, it was an act of civil disobedience we were glad to support with our patronage.

Living in New York, we know that the city fosters a renegade spirit. But in this instance, regulators are being far too heavy-handed and untrusting.


  1. Thanks, I guess, for defending chefs against bureaucrats. But slurring public-health agents by calling them failed NYPD wannabes does nothing for your credibility. Let's face it - some food businesses in New York are more scrupulous than others when it comes to sanitation. We're all better off for the fact that health inspection professionals perform their thankless jobs on our behalf. I consider them training allies.

  2. Well, maybe I was heavy-handed in making that point, since I didn't mean to "slur" the inspectors. But wouldn't you agree that the regulate-ees know more than the regulators in this instance? Isn't that indeed part of the problem, that sous vide is alien to the health department?
    One last thing about the knowledge of inspectors: The restaurant industry has from time to time suggested that it contribute to or even handle the training of health inspectors. The objective isn't to de-fang the officials, but to ensure they have the knowledge that will make them more stringent, since everyone benefits under that scenario.