Sushi chefs in California have their hands full with new law

California’s Sushi chefs have their hands full with new law — An employee at popular restaurant Sushi Gen in Los Angeles, picks up sushi with gloves on Feb. 4. Under a new California law implemented Jan. 1, food employees are not allowed to contact “ready-to-eat” foods with their bare hands except when washing fruits and vegetables. Kyodo News photo

California’s Sushi chefs have their hands full with new law — An employee at popular restaurant Sushi Gen in Los Angeles, picks up sushi with gloves on Feb. 4. Under a new California law implemented Jan. 1, food employees are not allowed to contact “ready-to-eat” foods with their bare hands except when washing fruits and vegetables. Kyodo News photo

LOS ANGELES — At popular Los Angeles restaurant Sushi Gen, 66-year-old Toshiaki Toyoshima slices fish in preparation for dinner. The sushi chef has honed his sushi-making techniques for nearly 50 years and the daily long lines of customers are a testament to that.

But to Toyoshima, the sushi he makes no longer feel like they are made by his own hands.

Thanks to a new California law implemented Jan. 1, chefs like Toyoshima are required to wear gloves when making sushi.

According to the new law, food employees are not allowed to contact “ready-to-eat” foods with their bare hands except when washing fruits and vegetables. Ready-to-eat foods do not require additional cooking or heating when served to customers. They include cold meats and sandwiches, garnishes and even sushi.

The law now requires people handling food to use proper equipment such as single-use gloves, spatulas, tongs or other dispensing equipment.

A food establishment may be exempt from the law if certain guidelines are met and it receives approval from the local regulatory authority.

States such as New York, Nevada, Washington and Texas have similar laws preventing bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat foods.

California is considered to be the place where the sushi boom took off in the United States with the creation of the California Roll. It is also believed to have more sushi restaurants than any other state in the country.

After hearing about the new law, sushi chefs in California wondered if they should quit making sushi altogether.

“The main purpose is to prevent the spread of food-borne illness,” said Lucy Macdonald, an Environmental Health Staff Specialist at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 6 people get sick from food-borne diseases in the United States each year.

“By avoiding bare-hand contact with foods that are ready-to-eat, foods that do not require further cooking, it provides added protection against contamination from germs from the hands of foodservice employees.”

However, there are some in the restaurant industry who question if that really is the case.

Andy Matsuda, 57, owner of the Sushi Chef Institute in Torrance, said, “The main key is that we need to educate people.”

Matsuda has been making sushi for over 40 years and currently teaches aspiring sushi chefs at the institute.

He said that sushi chefs are professionally trained people who are properly educated on food handling and sanitation, requiring them to wash their hands frequently and adhere to strict safety procedures.

“On the other hand, non-professional people with gloves tend not to wash their hands the proper way and not as often,” he said. “Then the cross contamination comes in anyway.”

For sushi chefs in particular, gloves pose a variety of problems. “You lose the technique,” says Toyoshima. Loss of speed, ingredients slipping from hands, even holding a knife becomes a hurdle for them.

The problem comes down to the tips of his fingers, Toyoshima said. “It’s the sense of touch. The feel of the fish is the most important,” he said. With gloves, he loses that sense of feeling. “It feels as if I’ve lost my hands.”

Last December, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added washoku traditional Japanese cuisine to the Intangible Cultural Heritage List. With the listing, advocates of washoku hope that people will recognize its value.

But with the new law in California, the opposite may occur. “The impact is that the image of Japanese culture is being destroyed,” said Matsuda.

Though the law went into effect at the start of the year, many chefs and foodservice employees are unaware of the change. The California Department of Public Health and local county health departments are focusing efforts on educating the industry on the new requirements.

The public health departments in San Francisco and San Diego said for the first half year, facilities will not be cited and will receive only a warning for violating the new law. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said it will strictly enforce the new law on Jan. 1, 2015.

Many county health departments have yet to finalize penalties for noncompliance before the law is strictly enforced, but officials in San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles said that they plan to deduct points in the facilities’ inspection reports. This could affect facilities’ health score letter grades displayed at their entrances.

But to seasoned sushi chefs like Toyoshima, losing the feeling of making sushi with their own hands may be the harshest penalty of all.

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