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Kimchi in Tricky Spot With NY Inspectors

Posted: Jan 05, 2012

NEW YORK ― Apparently, Korea’s quintessential kimchi isn’t as well known as we thought ― or else, New York City officials wouldn’t penalize kimchi makers for the way the fermented cabbage dish is stored.

In the eyes of health inspectors, kimchi is a cold food that belongs in the fridge at all times. If not, it becomes "potentially hazardous.’’

"They just don’t get it,’’ said Lee, a Korean restaurant owner in Manhattan, who didn’t want to disclose his full identity and business name. "It’s hard to get the concept across that kimchi can be kept at room temperature and it won’t kill anyone.’’

He is one of many Korean restaurant owners in New York slapped with violation points and fines.

The city’s health department requires cold food to be stored below 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius), a temperature too cold for kimchi to properly ferment.

Park Shin-soon, owner of Duck Hyang in Queens, tried to explain this to inspectors, only to end up with a $700 fine and violation points.

"The inspector didn’t understand how a cold food can be safe to eat even after being left at room temperature for two to three days,’’ she said, frustrated.

The fines and citations take a direct hit on restaurants’ image as they are required to post on their doors a letter grade of A, B or C based on their inspections.

"Diners don’t want to walk into a restaurant with a low health inspection grade. This is directly hurting our business,’’ says Lee Bun-hyeol, manager at a Korean barbeque.

Echoing these concerns, Korean business owners raised the issue during a forum with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in October last year.

Restaurateurs asked the mayor and health authorities to loosen inspection rules over kimchi.

One woman, a sanitation consultant for restaurants, even went out of her way to prove why the Korean staple should be an exception to the city’s cold food rule.

Kim Chong-won submitted dozens of samples of different types of kimchi to a lab to determine that the vegetable dish has an acidity level below 4.6, meaning it’s not hazardous.

Health authorities have earlier said kimchi would pass the inspection if owners can prove its acidity is below 4.6. But owners say they don’t have the time or means to conduct the tests.

The Korea Agro-Fisheries Trade Corporation moved to further prove this by sending a petition to New York’s Department of Health which includes lab results, stating that kimchi should be an exception to the temperature regulation since its acidity level is below 4.6.

Officials expect a response from the city later this month.

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