Chinatown Restaurants Brace For City Quackdown Health Agency Gunning For Peking Duck.

Posted: January 09, 1993

Although the Chinese have been showcasing duck their own special way for centuries without colliding with the law, Peking ducks are on the Philadelphia Health Department's Most Wanted list.

Inspectors say the crisp, reddish-brown delicacies shouldn't be displayed for hours on end in the windows of restaurants in Chinatown. Hanging around like that promotes the growth of bacteria, they say, which can make diners sick.

Joe Poon, ebullient owner of Joe's Peking Duck House in Chinatown, has a very American response to that: "Forget it!"

He and other Chinese restaurateurs met with city officials in July and November to find a solution to this daffy duck dilemma. Now Poon, who arrived in Philadelphia from Hong Kong 22 years ago with $8 in his pocket, says Chinatown grows impatient.

"City Council very nice. Health Department very nice," he says, "but why delay?"

Delay is not something this man understands. Words spin out of his mouth like a pinwheel. Between breaths, his beeper bleeps and the cellular phone rings and he says silly things like, "They call me all the time - I'm 911! Just kidding! Hahahahaha!"

But on the subject of ducks, those Long Island beauties that are his livelihood and a staple at many Chinese restaurants in town, he couldn't be more serious. He sputters at the Health Department's suggestion that his moist and meaty ducks be kept in a 140-degree (or hotter) oven or warming tray for the hours between roasting and serving.

That may be the law. But you can't treat a duck like a pizza, he says.

You keep a duck that warm - your Peking duck, your dry-hung or Chinese- style barbecued duck - for three, four hours or more, Poon says, and "you can't eat meat! The skin is so dry. It's chewy. The Health Department says it's healthy, but the public would not like duck. We lose business. City lose tax. Families lose jobs."

About eight Chinatown restaurant owners have been cited recently for not maintaining their Peking ducks at the proper temperatures. But they argue that a special case should be made for northern China's most famous dish. Although the way the duck is prepared may not prevent the growth of bacteria altogether, they say, the ingredients used - salt, sugar, MSG, spices, vinegars - greatly inhibit that growth and act as a preservative.

Maybe so, says the city, but where's the proof?

"We're not out to get Peking duck, but until proven otherwise, until we have some scientific evidence, we have to go with what our health code states," said Assistant City Solicitor Amy Norr, who handles food cases for the Health Department and who happens to be a vegetarian. "Just because you've been doing something for hundreds or thousands of years doesn't mean it's safe."

City officials are looking to Harrisburg for guidance in fashioning a legal compromise with Chinatown restaurateurs. But Poon, 46, thinks the eventual solution may be found even further west.

"L.A. law," he says. "That's the way."

Several years ago, in response to a similar controversy in Los Angeles, the California Health and Safety Code was amended to allow Chinese roasted duck to hang in restaurant windows for up to four hours.

"You have to look at it from a public health standpoint and a historical perspective," said Jack Breslin, assistant director of the state Health Department's Bureau of Environmental Health Services in San Francisco, which has a large Chinatown.

"Where are the bodies?" he said. "Where are the people becoming ill? Chinese culture has been producing this product for centuries without any harmful effects."

There have been no documented illnesses related to Peking duck in Philadelphia either, although Norr said that only a small fraction of food- poisoning cases are reported. "And most people assume it's just a 24-hour bug," she said.

An exception is made for Peking duck in New York City, too. There, it is considered a preserved food. "Because they are cooked in a sugar syrup, that acts as a preservative. We inspect to make sure the preservation process is proper, but that's all," said Peter Lynn, spokesman for the New York City Health Department.

In Philadelphia, the issue came to the fore in 1991 when city health inspectors cited a pair of Chinatown restaurants for, among other things, keeping their ducks in a row - in the window. The matter dragged on through 1992.

That was due, in part, to a sluggish bureaucracy. The other part was Chinatown restaurateurs' fear of and skepticism toward city inspectors, Poon said. "We all scared. And people irritated."

According to Arthur Holst, chief of staff for City Councilman Joseph C. Vignola, whose district includes Chinatown, restaurant owners hesitated to speak up because they "were afraid of being cited. They didn't want to ask questions. It's sort of like calling the IRS and asking about your taxes. You're afraid you'll get audited."

And there was a language problem. Several owners of Chinese restaurants declined to be interviewed, citing their poor English.

As city officials search for a solution, Poon - who serves about 100 ducks a day in his restaurant - does his own research, including tests at the State University of New York in Oneonta, where he received a degree in nutrition in 1978. He also has a portfolio of charts and studies that he says prove that traditionally prepared Peking duck poses no danger to consumers.

Norr said the city needed hard scientific data, but that "if it can be shown that standard methods used to prepare Peking duck render it safe, then we would make an exception for Peking duck."

It would take state and city laws to do so.

Meanwhile, ducks still fill the windows in Chinatown, and Poon hopes it stays that way. "I'm very lucky guy, but I work hard," he says.

For years he washed dishes, waited tables, chopped vegetables and learned to cook in places as disparate as Italian and French restaurants, a Marriott, a Dunkin' Donuts and the Oneonta Country Club.

Then, in 1980, a college degree under his belt, he became a partner at Sang Kee Peking Duck House on Ninth Street.

In 1984, he opened his own place on Race Street, followed three years later by a second restaurant in Marlton. He just started his own travel agency. He also lectures and entertains children in schools and hospitals with his intricate fruit- and vegetable-carving.

He has been to 38 states, been to Europe three times and somehow finds time to visit Hong Kong several times a year. "I always come back to Philadelphia," he says.

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