Advisory Committee member Prof. Jay Tang published in Health Daily

Self-translated with modification from an essay in Chinese published in the Reader’s Voice section of Health Daily –SEPTEMBER 12, 2007.

PUT A SPOON ON EACH SHARED DISH TO CHANGE AN UNHYGIENIC DINING PRACTICE

Upon each return to visit relatives and friends in China while studying and working in the USA for over ten years, I have been deeply impressed by the rapid economic development of my homeland.   Along with pleasant surprises and marvels, however, I have also grown acutely sensitive to one common practice in social dining in China.  I am compelled to raise public awareness on this singular issue.

Many times while having social meals with relatives, former classmates, and my fellow scientists in China, I discovered that people routinely use their chopsticks to pick up food from communal dishes on a large table.  Years ago when I was a new international student in the US, I did not realize how improper this practice was, but I soon learned that the practice was shocking to my American colleagues as well as those from various other countries.  Last year, I brought a British Brown University graduate student with me to visit a few universities in China.  While having meals with college students in China, that visitor could not bear to pick up food items from those shared delicious-looking dishes!

Another similarly awkward situation:  A Chinese professor at Cornell University, who is a long acquaintance of mine and married to an American colleague, told me that her husband could hardly have meals in restaurants with her Chinese friends. He would simply not eat food from the communal dishes being flipped by chopsticks of many diners on the table.  “Why?” one might ask.  

The reason is very simple. Such a common practice in communal dining is in fact an extreme violation of food hygiene. From a scientific point of view, there are numerous germs of many types in our mouths. While eating, every time when you stick the ends of your chopsticks along with a piece of food into your mouth, you might leave some germs on your chopsticks upon contact. When you reach out with the same chopsticks to another dish, some of these germs may be inadvertently left onto other pieces of food in the dish, or dissolved into the soup.  Before long, everyone around the table has a good chance of bringing some germs from everyone else’s mouth into his or her own, and perhaps ingesting them into his/her own stomach.  Day in and day out, those among us with slightly weaker immunity to certain germs would likely succumb to diseases in the digestive tract, such as bacterial infection of their stomach, livers, and other organs in the gastrointestinal tract or through blood circulation.    

According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), over 10% of Chinese adults have either contracted Hepatitis B or are carriers of the virus.  Nearly one quarter of Chinese citizens succumb to stomach diseases of various kinds, most often caused by viral or bacterial infection.  These two fractions far surpass those of most other nations. Why?  I believe the direct culprit is the Chinese communal food sharing without designating common-use utensils as described above.  In my opinion, this bad dining culture does far greater harm to the Chinese population than most other known unhealthy food hygiene hazards.   

The good news is that the potential solution to this problem is extremely simple, once the Chinese government and the people take this issue seriously.  Here is how:  Place a good-sized spoon in every shared dish on each dining table, be it in a restaurant or a home. Every diner must use the sharing spoon to pick up food and drop it onto his or her own plate, and then return the spoon before using his/her own chopsticks to pick up the pieces from his/her own plate and eat them.  This works very well, and is the standard practice in every Chinese restaurant in the US or Europe. 

Old habits die slowly. Those Chinese habits of communal eating originated from shared dining in family settings. Shared eating is a way of treating guests and friends as family members, hence they are hesitant to broach the issue. But with fast urbanization and globalization, China has entered an age of frequent business and professional gatherings with colleagues, collaborators, clients and visitors. The practice of communal eating is no longer appropriate because it offends rather than entertains. It is time to change it.

Positive changes often stall due to lack of persistent efforts in order to establish new norms.  For various reasons, it is embarrassingly difficult to remind diners in a social setting not to reach for food using their own chopsticks.  While sharing meals with an extended family, for instance, the more health conscious youngsters often feel it is inappropriate to remind their elders to correct a bad habit. Similar situations apply while having social meals involving less hygiene-conscious clients, superiors, supervisors, distinguished guests, etc.  

No matter what the excuses or obstacles are, fostering awareness and education promoted through the public health departments of all levels of government, of the need to fix this public health issue ought be a lot easier than the successful fight against SARS, which was led effectively by the Chinese government.  Insistence by the public and regulations implemented by governmental health organizations would ensure that even the smallest rural restaurants or dining places would provide enough spoons for use as sanitary sharing utensils.

In recent years, many large- and medium-sized cities in China have started hosting foreign guests from all over the world.  May I advocate loudly through this essay that Chinese people gather courage to abolish this ugly practice of cross-contamination in communal dining? Let the image of a renewed China be reflected not only by numerous skyscrapers and modern transportation networks as well as a cleaner environment and healthier lifestyles, including a more hygienic culture of social dining.   

Author Jay X. Tang is a physics and engineering professor of Brown University, USA.