The Real Beef In Chinatown

Posted: February 04, 1986

On Thursday, if they hold to plan, City Council members will lunch en masse in Philadelphia's beleaguered Chinatown. Chinatown is suffering because last month federal inspectors shut down a local food warehouse because of grossly unsanitary conditions. The warehouse reportedly supplied a few of the restaurants in Chinatown.

There's nothing like a drumbeat of publicity about rodent and insect infestations at a food warehouse to make folks lose their appetite. And, though there have been repeated official assurances that, yes, it's safe to venture back to Chinatown, business at the eateries there is still in a slump.

That's why the Council is lunching there - to show a bit of solidarity and get the word out that the fried rice and wonton soup is fit for human consumption. Which is all well and good.

Except that it is the easy, no-pain way to address the real problem. The real problem is not in Chinatown, but in a city Health Department that on several occasions failed to act on sanitation violations at the warehouse until federal authorities moved to padlock the place.

Outgoing city Health Commissioner Stuart Shapiro says the division responsible for such inspections is "assessing its procedures" and the timing of when it should stop talking and go to court. That's fine.

But it would be nice to hear someone in Council urging the department along in that task. If local authorities had done their job up front, there would be no need for damage control today.

Philadelphia's diners and Chinatown's hard-working restaurateurs, respectively, have had their confidence shaken and reputations sullied. They deserve more than a gimmicky luncheon for their troubles. They deserve some explanations and assurances that the Health Department won't permit such a fiasco to occur again.

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