Last week, New York’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene held a hearing about changing some of the city’s food safety laws. There’s no love lost between the DOH and the restaurant industry (the department’s grading system has been roundly criticized, especially since three-Michelin star eatery Per Se received a C grade last year), and the latest measures in Article 81 won’t do much to thaw relations.
According to Crain’s, two of the most problematic proposals include halting new restaurant openings until after they’ve been inspected (the DOH is not renowned for speed and efficiency), and requiring chefs to freeze any wild-caught fish that’s being served raw or undercooked. Shellfish and tuna are exempt from the rule, which is intended to kill parasites; if passed, restaurants serving ceviche, crudo, or sushi would be required to freeze their fish at -31 degrees. According to the New York State Restaurant Association, that’s colder than most walk-in freezers and would “force restaurateurs to make large investments in new freezer equipment.”
The regulation will affect many New York restaurants, especially seafood eateries like Cevich. (Photo: Cevich)
The restaurant industry has long complained about the DOH’s red tape and exorbitant fines, but what really has New York diners up in arms is the idea of pre-frozen nigiri. Brooklyn Magazine called the proposal a “war on sushi” and Grub Street pointed out this would affect roughly half the omakase menu at heatseeking new eatery Shuko.
But here’s the thing: According to a 2004 New York Times article, it’s already required by the FDA.
When we contacted the FDA for comment, the organization said it’s a guideline rather than a regulation, but it is definitely recommended. And according to the Times, sushi chefs have other motivations to freeze their fish aside from public health concerns. In the article, Sushi Yasuda owner Naomichi Yasuda admitted to freezing fresh tuna at the restaurant so that it was available to customers out-of-season. And the late Shin Tsujimura said he did the same at Nobu, and that he couldn’t tell the difference between fresh and frozen tuna in a blind taste test.
Toro tartare at Nobu New York. (Photo: Flickr/ James Yu)
That’s because well-frozen fish can sometimes taste better than fresh, says New York Times columnist and author Mark Bittman. If a catch is frozen immediately at very low temperatures—and then thawed properly—it retains texture, flavor, and nutrients that might otherwise be lost in the time it takes to reach your plate. According to CNN, what is marketed as fresh fish can actually “be anywhere from one day to two weeks out of the water.”
Of course, some species handle freezing better than others. The Washington Post says that leaner fish like cod risk drying out, but fatty types like tuna and salmon can handle it. In any case, you don’t want to be eating raw salmon that hasn’t been frozen—small wild salmon (such as coho and sockeye) are particularly prone to parasites, according to ABC News.
While much of Article 81 appears to be yet more arbitrary red tape from the DOH, the mandate to freeze fish isn’t. It’s the enforcement of an FDA guideline designed to stop us from ingesting nine foot tapeworms with dinner. New Yorkers would do well to reign in their outrage on this one, especially since their beloved fresh sushi is very likely frozen anyway.