Politics & Government

Asian chefs ask state to unwind rules that put noodles in the fridge

Owner Huy Tat unfolds fresh rice noodles after they are delivered earlier in the day at Hue Ky Mi Gia Chinese noodle house on Tuesday. He gets a fresh rice noodle delivery each day. Tat doesn’t refrigerate the noodles because he uses them right away and they don’t sit out long.
Owner Huy Tat unfolds fresh rice noodles after they are delivered earlier in the day at Hue Ky Mi Gia Chinese noodle house on Tuesday. He gets a fresh rice noodle delivery each day. Tat doesn’t refrigerate the noodles because he uses them right away and they don’t sit out long. lwong@thenewstribune.com

Each day, fresh rice noodles are delivered to the Hue Ky Mi Gia noodle house in Tacoma’s Lincoln District, arriving shortly after they’re made in Seattle each morning.

There, owner Huy Tat stores the fresh noodles at room temperature and uses them up the same day.

It’s a method of preparation that many in the restaurant industry say is traditional in Asian cultures and has been proven safe for hundreds of years. But Washington state’s Board of Health disagrees, requiring the fresh rice noodles to be refrigerated — a process Tat said damages the product.

“The rice noodles, you can’t really refrigerate those,” said Tat, who also operates Hue Ky Mi Gia locations in Kent and Seattle. “We don’t store them in there, because they get really hard.”

It’s a concern shared by some of Washington state’s top noodle manufacturers, including Tim Louie, the president of the Tsue Chong Company in Seattle’s International District. Louie said the 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of fresh rice noodles his company makes each day would be ruined if they were placed straight in the fridge.

Right now, Washington state law requires the rice products to be stored either at 135 degrees Fahrenheit or above, or at 41 degrees or below.

“Culturally, in Asia, we keep the stuff out,” Louie said. “We don’t even refrigerate it — we keep it out until it’s consumed. But of course, here in the U.S., the laws are different.”

Now those food safety rules will get a second look, thanks to a bill approved by the state Legislature Tuesday.

Senate Bill 6398 directs the state Board of Health to reconsider whether fresh rice noodles and rice cakes must go in the fridge.

Without the the legislation, the Board of Health wouldn’t have issued new food-safety recommendations for rice products until 2018, the next time the board is scheduled to update its rules, said state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, the sponsor of the measure in the state House.

The legislation instructs the board to develop new rules based on available scientific research, which Santos said backs up the traditional wisdom that fresh rice noodles can be stored at room temperature.

Should the measure be signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee, Santos said she hopes new food-safety guidance for fresh rice noodles and rice cakes would be released later this year.

“The issue really is the science around handling foods made with certain products is evolving,” said Santos, D-Seattle, who introduced her legislation after Louie brought the problem to her attention.

Two recent studies in Asian scientific journals have found that fresh rice noodles remain fresh at room temperature for at least a day, if not more, after they’re produced.

Yet Santos said she’s heard of some restaurants having to throw away “perfectly good product” after health inspectors have told them it’s not safe.

Sen. Bob Hasegawa, the sponsor of the measure in the Senate, said so far the state’s food code has failed to account for noodles made from rice, subjecting them instead to food-safety rules designed for noodles that contain wheat or animal products.

Hasegawa, D-Seattle, said he thinks the bill that the Legislature passed Tuesday “opens up the conversation about cultural understanding.”

“Rice noodles don’t spoil at the same rate that wheat-based noodles do,” Hasegawa said. “This bill just requires that the Department of Health use science to determine what spoilage rates are appropriate.”

California has already relaxed its food safety rules for rice noodles and rice cakes. Lawmakers there passed legislation in 2010 allowing fresh rice noodles to be served without refrigeration up to four hours after they’re made. A follow-up law in 2012 allowed fresh rice noodles in California to have an even longer shelf life if they include an additive that prevents browning.

Freshly made Korean rice cakes, meanwhile, can remain unrefrigerated for up to 24 hours in California.

Louie and other advocates of changing the rules said they know of no incidents in which people have become sick from eating fresh rice noodles or rice cakes stored at room temperature.

The state Department of Health disputes that, saying there have been some cases in Washington of illnesses linked to improperly stored rice noodles. But a department spokeswoman said she couldn’t say how many times incidents had occurred, or how long the rice products involved had been out of the fridge, without doing an extensive review of records.

Even so, the state Board of Health supports reexamining its food safety rules for rice products. Michelle Davis, the board’s executive director, said in a public hearing this month that agency officials “recognize the rules need to work in a number of different settings, and should be culturally sensitive.”

Santos said the Board of Health and the Health Department have been “very open” to reassessing food-safety rules for fresh rice noodles and rice cakes. She said she doesn’t think it occurred to anyone there was a difference between rice noodles and those made from wheat or animal products.

“It was never brought to their attention,” Santos said.

Louie said he’s glad the the state is going to look at adjusting the rules so they align more closely with the experience of people from China and other Asian cultures.

“Rice noodles, it’s a cultural product that’s been around for 2,000 years,” Louie said. “I know it’s safe for 24 hours, because that’s how I’ve eaten it.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1