The duck carcasses that hang in many a Chinese restaurant window may not be an appetizing sight for all diners. But unlike most meat, Peking duck has been deemed safe to serve at room temperature.
In general, though, the federal Food and Drug Administration recommends that foods in restaurants be stored at or below 41 degrees or above 140 degrees. However, that sort of stricture does not sit well in many ethnic eateries, from sushi bars in Phoenix to the Hmong restaurants of East Detroit.
"I don't think it's unique to the Asian community," said Steve Grover of the National Restaurant Association. "There are a lot of foods that are best served at room temperature."
In a growing number of places, public health officials are struggling to balance cultural preferences with the need to protect diners from harmful bacteria.
Recently, both the private and public sectors have moderated their hard-line stances on the matter. Major manufacturers of sushi rice, for instance, are now soaking their product with vinegar, which helps to stave off bacterial growth.
Governments are adapting as well. The FDA's food code allows some foods to be stored at room temperature for up to four hours. Nineteen states have adopted the code so far.
Restaurateurs were able to convince California lawmakers that the process of marinating Peking duck, which is stored overnight at room temperature, successfully kills bacteria. Other food handlers, including wholesalers, can justify room-temperature storage to public health officials by submitting a "hazard analysis and critical control point" plan that demonstrates the reduction of risk.
In some cases, restaurateurs can identify raw or room-temperature foods through signage or explanations on menus. California now allows raw eggs to be served in Caesar salads if that ingredient is disclosed.