LOS ANGELES – At popular Los Angeles restaurant Sushi Gen, 66-year-old Toshiaki Toyoshima slices fish in preparation for dinner. The chef has honed his sushi-making technique 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 feels like it is made by his own hands.
Thanks to a California law that took effect Jan. 1, chefs like Toyoshima are required to wear gloves when making sushi.
According to the new law, employees are not allowed to contact “ready-to-eat” food with their bare hands except when washing fruits and vegetables. Ready-to-eat food does not require additional cooking or heating when served to customers, and includes cold meats, sandwiches, garnishes and even sushi.
People handling food are required to use specific equipment such as single-use gloves, spatulas, tongs or other dispensing equipment.
A food establishment may be exempt 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 barehanded 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.
The theory is that by avoiding bare hand contact with foods that are ready-to-eat, there is added protection against contamination from germs from the hands of food service 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 more than 40 years and currently teaches aspiring sushi chefs at the institute.
He said that sushi chefs are professionally trained and properly educated on food handling and sanitation, and they are required to wash their hands frequently and adhere to strict safety procedures.
“On the other hand, nonprofessional 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,” said Toyoshima. Loss of speed, ingredients slipping from hands, even holding a knife becomes a hurdle.
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.” With gloves, he loses that sense of feeling.
“It feels as if I’ve lost my hands,” he said.
UNESCO in December honored “washoku” traditional Japanese cuisine as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. With the listing, advocates of washoku hope that people around the world 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 food service 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 starting next Jan. 1.
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.