34th Street Partnership Responds to Street Food Post w/ More Misinformation
On Tuesday, when we wrote about the New York Daily News’ horribly under researched article about getting sick from street food we specifically called out Dan Biederman, the president of the 34th Street Partnership, for drawing incorrect assumptions from the misleading statistics printed in the article. Yesterday he responded in an email to us (and in the comments of the post). Here’s his response, plus our response to his response.
Dear Mr. Brooks,
Midtown Lunch, according to its credo, “loves street food, and the challenge of eating in places that most of our co-workers would consider ‘dirty.’” We understand that, but also believe that the proliferation of unsanitary and unregulated food carts serving ill-prepared food does not contribute to the quality of any diner’s experience.
Ok. So I’ve got to stop you right there. I feel like these two sentences sum up the entire issue I have with this article and Dan Biederman’s quotes. Our credo, as you call it, doesn’t say that we like dirty food. It says we like places “that most of our co-workers would consider ‘dirty’.” (I can’t believe I’m about to give a lesson in punctuation, but…) the extra quotes around dirty are meant to signify that THEY’RE NOT ACTUALLY DIRTY. THEY’RE DELICIOUS. And many workers in Midtown simply think they’re dirty because they’re not chains, or they’re run from carts on the street, or in freight elevator hallways, or run by people who don’t speak English. You, sir, are the “co-worker” we’re making fun of in our credo. The sad thing is, as a public figure you have the ability to spread this stereotype on a larger scale than the average Midtown office worker.
Against my better judgement, I’ll allow you to continue.
Your post published yesterday fails to mention that brick and mortar restaurants receive NYC Department of Health sanitary inspection letter grades. This provides consumers with at least some point-of-purchase information about food safety and cleanliness. There is no such information available at food carts. In fact, many food items sold at carts, such as chicken, are marinated or partially cooked at shadowy commissaries.
I’ve got to stop you there again. These “shadowy commissaries” you refer to are permitted and inspected by the Department of Health, just like restaurants. You can argue for letter grades on street food carts, but the absence of them doesn’t prove that all street food is inherently dirtier than restaurant food.
Most food carts don’t maintain supplies of clean water and soap for use by cart operators.
This is simply not true. Carts are required by the department of health to have hot and cold water (plus soap) on their carts, and will get fined for not doing so. And you say there’s no oversight, but carts are constantly getting tickets for these things (just as restaurants do.) To imply that most carts don’t follow the rules is unfair, and simply not true.
Vendors can often be observed not wearing required rubber gloves and smoking while preparing food.
Again with the word “often”. How often have you eaten street food? Because I’ve eaten hundreds of plates of street meat and have never seen a vendor smoking while making my food. Again, you’re making generalizations based on what? Also, you should probably know the laws before talking about them. The health code does not require that everyone on a cart wear gloves, only that there be no bare-hand contact with certain foods. In other words, if you are not touching food with your bear hands, you do not need to wear gloves. Has a street vendor ever touched food with his bare hands? I’m sure it happens. But to pretend that this is more of a problem on the street, in plain sight, than it is in restaurant kitchens, which we can’t see, is disingenuous.
A local TV station even recorded a food cart vendor at Sixth Avenue and 43rd St. blowing his nose, and then using the same tissue to wipe down his grill.
And fast food workers are caught all the time doing sick shit. Should we close all fast food restaurants? I’m sure if local TV stations could get hidden cameras inside New York City restaurants you’d see some equally gross things. At least street food vendors are completely out in the open, so you can see where and how your food is being cooked. I’d say that’s an advantage not a disadvantage to eating food on the street.
The temperature that raw food is held at, and the period of time involved, is critical to the increase in harmful bacteria in raw and partially cooked food. The critical temperature range is 40 degrees F to 140 degrees F. Chicken is particularly critical as raw chicken is susceptible to high bacteria counts due to production, slaughtering, and handling procedures to begin with. With sidewalk food vendors, raw chicken is held at undetermined temperatures in unsupervised commissaries then transported in ambient temperatures to remote off-premise food carts on city sidewalks where it is kept, quite possibly for hours, in a raw and then partially cooked state (at temperatures within the critical range) on a cart griddle before being sold and finally consumed.
Aside from calling the commissaries “unsupervised”, which again is not true, I will say, this is the one and only argument that you might have a point. But I’d like to see more actual data comparing the food from food carts with food from restaurants and bodegas (which have tons of pre made food sitting out for questionable amounts of time.) But how do you explain the repeat business that so many street vendors have built up? In Midtown there are a good number of vendors who cater to tourists, and don’t rely on repeat business to survive. Admittedly, these are the vendors that are usually included in stories like the one printed in the NYDN. But most street food vendors in this city rely on repeat customers, and have built up large followings over the years. I would find it hard to believe that they are regularly causing food poisoning by handling their food in an unsafe way. To generalize about the majority of vendors based on the actions of a few is just unfair.
The food handlers typically have no means to keep their hands, surfaces, and tools hygienic.
Again, this is absolutely not true. Unless by “typically” you mean “occasionally”.
In a typical restaurant situation the transition from refrigerated storage to preparation, cooking and consumption is much swifter, maybe minutes, and is supervised all the way by trained and experienced professional cooks working in hygienic premises that have been regularly inspected and rated by the Department of Health. Which situation is most likely to encourage the growth of harmful bacteria? And which food is more likely to make you sick?
Again, you supplement potentially valid points with ridiculous stereotypes. Why are restaurants supervised by “trained and experienced professional cooks”, but food carts are not? All street vendors need to have vending licenses displayed around their neck. Restaurant workers aren’t forced to do that. As a matter of fact, most street food vendors have to go through way more training than restaurant workers, not just for those licenses, but because they typically are on the food carts alone, where restaurant workers don’t have to be trained or certified in any way- as long as there is one certified person overseeing the kitchen at the time.
Since it’s well known that food poisoning is drastically under-reported, it is quite impressive that 359 complaints to the city’s 311 lines have come in. The 311 calls also don’t reflect visits to the city’s hospital emergency rooms or private physicians, and people who just suffer by toughing it out at home.
This completely ignores the fact that during the same time period there were over 30 times as many complaints to 311 about food poisoning at brick and mortar restaurants. So you could make the argument that brick and mortar caused cases of food poisoning are underreported as well.
And that alone, sir, is why we’re truly upset about this article. It’s not that we’re arguing that street food vendors are perfect across the board. Or that all street food is clean, and prepared properly. We’re just arguing that the data you’re using to prove your point is completely misleading. You’re trying to argue that street food is inherently dirty by propping up food poisoning statistics that actually prove that brick and mortar food establishments are at least as dirty as street food vendors if not more dirty (if that’s your measure.)
If you want to have an honest discussion about how we can make the food in New York City “cleaner”, let’s have that discussion. And there are plenty of ways the Department of Health can be improved, not just in their dealings with street food vendors but in their dealings with all restaurants. But this article was sensationalist journalism helped on by a neighborhood association President who clearly just wants to get rid of street food vendors and doesn’t care how he does it. You might represent the businesses around 34th street, but we represent the eaters. And there are a lot of those eaters who like the street food, and want to keep it. As “dirty” as you think it might be.