Shanghai health authorities, which are busy inspecting thousands of restaurants around the city before the lunar New Year's Eve next week, are suggesting diners break with Chinese tradition during the most important holiday of the year.
Health officials are suggesting restaurants serve food on separate dishes to each customer instead of using the traditional method of serving one big dish that everyone can help themselves from.
While many eateries did that last spring during the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak to prevent spreading the virus, the practice quickly ended when the disease was brought under control.
"New Year's dinner is a get-together for relatives and friends. Serving separate dishes may destroy the cozy atmosphere," said a manager surnamed Zhu at Shanghai Xinghualou Restaurant on downtown Fuzhou Road.
"We provide such service only if customers ask for it. Normally, we provide public chopsticks and spoons," said Zhu.
A growing number of restaurants are now providing serving spoons and chopsticks, which is more hygienic than allowing everyone to use their own chopsticks and spoons.
"Eating together from a big plate is a tradition for Chinese. Since it is a family party and all the people are relatives, it is awkward to eat from separate dishes," said Zhang Lin, a 42-year-old woman.
Any restaurant serving the traditional dinner on New Year's Eve - known as nianyefan - to more than five tables of dinners should report to the Shanghai Health Supervision Agency ahead of time to set up an inspection.
Inspectors will audit the restaurants' process for handling and preparing food from buying ingredients, to storage, preparation and serving, and make suggestions about how they can improve.
Any restaurant with major problems will be given a list of improvements to make before a further inspection on New Year's Eve, which falls on January 21 this year.
If they fail the second inspection, they will be shut down that night, one of the busiest evenings of the year, officials said.
Any restaurant that doesn't report to the agency ahead of time to set up an inspection risks being shut down during random inspections on New Year's Eve.
Health officials said they receive reports of food poisoning following every Spring Festival as many restaurants overbook to make more money, which often means kitchen staff are too busy to take necessary hygienic precautions.
To date several hundred restaurants around the city have set up inspections, according to the local health supervision agency.
It estimate that some 1,000 restaurants will serve the New Year's dinner to more than five tables of customers this year.
(Shanghai Star January 15, 2004)