Larry Levine —

(Number 5 in a series – A Food Lover’s Journey)

Today’s topic is nutty food laws. The inspiration: two weeks in the province of Ontario Canada.

It began when our friend Dan ordered a hamburger cooked to medium rare for lunch one day in a restaurant at Niagara-on-the-Lake.

“It will have to be well done,” the waitress responded.

“Why?” asked Dan.

“It’s the law,” said the waitress. “We’re not allowed to do them any less than well done.”

“See what you Californians have done,” chimed in my cousin Barry, a resident of Toronto.

“Wait a minute,” I replied with indignation. “I can get a rare burger anywhere in California. We don’t have any such law.”

The next day Dan dared to order a hamburger medium rare for lunch at another restaurant in the same city.

“We can’t do it any less than medium well,” came the reply from the waitress.

Aha, I thought. No one knows what the law actually says. One place says it’s well done, the other says medium well. I wonder if there even is such a law.

Five nights later, at dinner at a very nice restaurant in Toronto, also in the province of Ontario, I found steak tartare offered on the appetizer menu. Rare burgers are out but raw meat is OK. I joked that if someone would bring me a bun and some tomato and onion I’d make my own rare burger.

And just for the record, a law was proposed in California once upon a time. It was defeated. Instead the legislature enacted a requirement that restaurant menus carry a health advisory about raw or under-cooked foods. We’ve seen that same advisory mimicked in a number of other states.

Also, for the record Dan skipped the burger both days.

And it turns out it may not be a law after all. An internet search of the subject doesn’t resolve the matter. The former owner of a catering business in the province says: “Restaurateurs and their staffs are scared into submission. Regulators tell you to cook all ground meat to 71 degrees Celsius (160 degrees Fahrenheit) or you might be sued by a customer who becomes ill. Most certified food handlers and owners do not want to risk any trouble unnecessarily. It isn’t law but who wants to be sued by some patron complaining about undercooked meat that made them sick?”

As far as we can track down, there is Regulation 562 included in the Health Protection and Promotion Act. It states certain minimum temperatures that add up to at least medium well for burgers in a restaurant. There’s a debate, however, over whether it’s a law or just a recommendation.

My cousin Beverly, Barry’s wife, who also lives in Toronto, tells me, “I usually make my burgers at home, so I can cook them however I want.” But at one of her favorite local restaurants, she says she “has no trouble getting a burger rare or medium rare.”

And while we’re at it, the same Health Protection and Promotion Act specifies minimum temperatures for cooking fish that add up to more well done than I ever would want fish. But, you guessed it; there are sushi restaurants in Toronto that serve raw fish.

Now, in fairness to Barry and his comment about Californians having caused the whole thing, I will acknowledge that come next July we will be the only state in the nation to ban the sale of foie gras. There was a ban in Chicago for a time, but it was repealed. Some foie gras producers in California and other places are actively considering what can be done to negate the ban before it takes effect. I’ll write more on that soon. For now, let me just say it’s OK to kill and eat a duck but it isn’t OK to fatten that same duck’s liver to make foie gras.

Finally, as I write this the state legislature in California is considering a ban on shark fin soup. Proponents point to the process of harvesting the fins and throwing the rest of the shark back into the water to drown. But what impact will a California ban have on a worldwide situation? A very small percentage of shark fin soup is consumed in California. Perhaps, a more effective solution would lie in international regulation of how many sharks can be taken each year, a ban on taking those that cannot be consumed, and a requirement that any shark taken for its fin must also be dressed out for consumption of the entire fish.

And remember, in California it’s illegal to sell a horse that will be slaughtered for food, but we can kill all the cows, sheep, lambs, pigs and fish we want to kill.

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