If someone were to walk up to you on the street and ask what type of food is most likely to give you food poisoning, what would you say?
Well, if your answer falls under the umbrella of "ethnic" food, it's fair to say that answer is all but certainly racially biased, and these biases continue to unfairly cloud the reputation of many minority-owned restaurants.
Last month, New York-based restaurant review website The Infatuation drew the ire of the Internet for its strange review of Kings County Imperial, a white-owned Chinese restaurant in Williamsburg.
In his praise for the restaurant, the site’s co-founder Andrew Steinthal described eating in more traditional Chinese restaurants in Chinatown and Flushing as “get[ting] gross” and associated such restaurants with “MSG and meat sweats.”
Steinthal’s piece has since been taken down and replaced with a mea culpa, but the fact that the review was published in the first place raises important questions of why, in our ever-diversifying world, these stereotypes persist.
As NPR pointed out in a story published Saturday, these types of biases date back more than a century -- an 1883 New York Times story questioned, "do the Chinese eat rats?" -- so they are deeply entrenched in our food culture.
Chinese restaurants, though, are not alone in this. As The Atlantic’s CityLab reported last fall, the food served at so-called “ethnic” restaurants -- typically referring to cuisines such as Chinese, Mexican or Middle Eastern, but not so much Italian or French -- is more often blamed for suspected food poisoning than restaurants that are white-owned.
A separate analysis published by Slate in 2014 found that more Yelp users claimed they had gotten food poisoning from Asian restaurants than from any other type of cuisine.
But is there any truth to the apparent association between minority-owned restaurants and food that is less safe? Bill Marler, a nationally-recognized food safety advocate and Seattle-based attorney who represents victims of foodborne illnesses, is doubtful.
“It’s hard for me to look at the work I’ve done [for over 20 years] and go, 'Boy, ethnic restaurants have really kept me in business,'” Marler told The Huffington Post. “It’s just not the case.”
Still, minority-owned restaurants do appear to face some unique challenges when it comes to food safety as existing research does associate such restaurants with higher rates of health code violations.
A paper published last year in the International Journal of Hospitality Management compared two years of food safety and sanitation inspection data for “ethnic” and “non-ethnic” restaurants in five major U.S. cities and found that the “ethnic” restaurants had rates of inspections and critical violations that were “significantly higher” than their non-ethnic peers.
Additional research published in the Journal of Culinary Science & Technology reported similarly, based on an analysis of Kansas restaurants, that independently-owned ethnic restaurants had significantly more critical and non-critical food code violations when compared to chain ethnic restaurants and both independent and chain non-ethnic restaurants.
According to that study’s co-author, Kansas State associate professor of hospitality management Junehee Kwon, cultural differences and communication difficulties are significant factors contributing to some Asian restaurants’ food safety struggles. A 2013 paper Kwon co-authored found that many Chinese restaurateurs, in particular, found it difficult to both follow health inspectors’ instructions and to understand their inspection report.
Because food code violations are typically prompted by a customer complaint, it’s hard to say the degree to which racial biases might impact a customer’s willingness to report an alleged food poisoning from an ethnic restaurant compared to a non-ethnic one.
Either way, there is a clear need, Kwon argues, for food safety training tools that navigate cultural differences in a more effective way.
“We have all these different groups of people living in this country and they have different kinds of habits and risk perceptions,” Kwon told HuffPost. “So we need to actually focus some of these messages to whoever the target group is.”
No significant efforts to do just that appear to be underway, even as some food handling materials in recent years have been found to be not only not culturally inclusive, but also directly offensive.
Two years ago, food advocate and founder of caterToronto, a community-based catering network, Vanessa Ling Yu discovered that her city health department’s food handler certification manual that she believed was “racist” in that it contained language specifically naming “Chinese-style foods” as causes of food poisoning.
The manual has since been revised and the reference removed. But Yu argues that not only such materials, but also venues like Yelp and restaurant review sites continue to frame food that is deemed “good” and “safe” by Western standards.
Yu pointed to the xenophobia and bad science that powered the backlash against MSG, an umami-enhancing chemical compound found in many foods in the past but most often associated with Chinese food, as evidence of that.
“All of the above are really complicit if they don’t address the inclusiveness of this,” Yu told HuffPost. “ Even owners of restaurants participate in this too, putting a big sign inside the restaurant that says ‘No MSG.’ A French restaurant doesn’t feel they need to do that, so you’re playing the game.”
Soleil Ho, the Portland, Oregon-based author of a 2014 essay for Bitch magazine that examined issues of cultural appropriation and foodie culture, believes -- as others have argued -- a lack of diversity among food writers is part of the problem.
For example, Ho pointed out that that when chef Thomas Keller’s esteemed New York restaurant Per Se was hit with a “C” health grade from the city department in 2014, food writers rushed to Per Se’s defense, criticizing the health department’s grading system. Ho is doubtful there would have been such resistance had the establishment in question been a Chinese restaurant.
“Despite urban food media’s obsession with the new, that obsession has never extended to their own hiring practices,” Ho, who also co-hosts a podcast on food, race, gender and class called Racist Sandwich, wrote via e-mail. “That’s a shame because, especially in urban areas, the pools of journalists are most definitely not reflective of the areas they serve.”
While the solution to the problem is unclear, it is clearly not going away.
The “ethnic” food segment is growing -- and Asian cuisine in particular is in the midst of a surge of popularity globally. So maybe we all need to take a breath before we craft that next “thanks for the food poisoning!” tweet, particularly when proper steps have not been taken to actually confirm a foodborne illness.
What’s at stake, Yu argues, are traditions that have passed down through families for generations. You just can’t teach some of this stuff.
“We privilege the white Williamsburg guys,” Yu said,” but if we don’t become more open and welcome to the different ways that people understand food, we will lose a lot of traditional foodways.”
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email email@example.com.