Noodle Story

by tawny tsang

America – home of the brave, land of the free. While these concepts are embedded in our national anthem, they exist in reality as oxymorons. Judging from the cautionary notes on Styrofoam cups, America likes to play it safe. And anyone who has taken an economics course knows that there is no such thing as free lunch. Perhaps it’s more congruent to say that the American people are brave and free, especially in regards to California’s state health officials and Asian American business owners. Brave to create a law over the refrigeration of Asian noodles and free to react accordingly to it.

According to the Los Angeles Times, there is a new federal law that requires manufacturers to refrigerate fresh rice noodles, which clashes against the tradition of storing them at room temperature. This attracted the attention of California Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) when a San Francisco noodle factory was recently cited by health officials for violating a law that mandates food be stored at either under 41o Fahrenheit or above 140o where microbial growth is stunted.

Not only have jobs been lost over this issue, sparks have been flying. State health officials say that the refrigeration of food is a public health measure whereas Asian American business owners say that the law is a violation of traditional practices. And so, Yee and a group of noodle manufacturers
are joining forces in hopes of changing the law. From an outsider’s perspective, both parties have legit arguments. Not too long ago, there was a salmonella outbreak in tomato crops and E. coli outbreak in spinach.
Taking precautionary measures to prevent detrimental health consequences is reasonable.

However, this noodle law can be seen as “red tapism” and just represents another aspect of how un-free and inflexible America really is. Red tape refers to excessive regulation that is considered redundant or bureaucratic and hinders action. As there have not been any reported illnesses from consuming fresh noodles stored at room temperature, it seems unnecessary to suddenly bring up regulations on how they’re manufactured. This law also seems to veer away from the original intent to screen potentially harmful food preparation practices.

On the other hand, the Asian American business owners also have a point. Food is an accessible way to teach others about a particular group’s culture and tradition. How else to represent Southeast Asian cuisine than through
noodles? Noodle factory owner Tom Thong says that rice noodles have been prepared at room temperature and eaten for thousands of years. Once refrigerated, the noodles become ruined – hard and brittle. They’re like baguettes or fresh bread – you just don’t put them in the fridge.

Thong claims that health inspectors “don’t understand our culture.” This is a bold statement because the reverse could also be true – he may not understand that refrigerating foods is part of the “American culture.” Moreover, in Australia, eggs are found on shelves in aisles; in Greece, milk is also found on the shelf; in many countries, fruit and vegetables are left out of refrigerators. Likewise, many Asian confections are also meant to be stored at room temperature like mocha (sticky rice balls) and moon cakes (made out of lotus paste). The rest of the world is not reaming with gastrointestinal issues. They just have a concept of freshness that we lack.

Nowhere else is the obesity epidemic or diabetes rate as high as in America. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. obesity rate has been rising annually and currently, about 30 percent of Californian adults are considered obese. This increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and cardiova-scular disease. One of the main contributing factors to this is the use of high fructose corn syrup in foods. High-fructose corn syrup is not only a cheap sweetener but also a preservative found in nearly all the packaged foods lining the shelves of American supermarkets. Rather than eating fresh foods due to potential microbial growth, Americans prefer eating synthetic foods that are supposedly safe to eat even after a year of being produced. Instead of blindly setting regulations on the refrigeration of food, the California Department of Public Health should embrace cultural practices like making fresh noodles and storing them as is. It should be time that health officials open their eyes to their culture of hypersensitivity to sanity and health.

Refrigeration is a recent phenomenon. For thousands of years, mankind has been consuming food between the 410 and 141o range. And we are still alive and well. Cultural practices still persist despite the development of new technologies because they are efficient and safe. Asian American or not, we have all fallen victim to American cultural practices of eating and preparing foods out of boxes rather than whole foods. If health is the main concern over this noodle refrigeration law, then the California Department of Public Health is missing the point. The use of preservatives and promotion of refrigeration is more harmful than room temperature noodles. The hyper-sensitivity to food safety created practices cancel out ideals of freshness and perpetuate unhealthful food choices. Rather than tangling themselves in this noodle issue, I think it’s time for health officials to realize that in living in the land of the free and home of the brave, they need to try new things and not be afraid to admit their mistakes.