Ethnic restaurants are one of the fastest-growing segments of the food-service industry, but their increasing numbers present challenges for U.S. food inspectors.

Inspectors who may be unfamiliar with specific ethnic foods and customs may feel uncertain—even shocked—upon entering these restaurants, where they may encounter dishes prepared with items like fertilized poultry eggs, live eels and  frogs, and animal genitalia.

Rather than compelling immigrants to abandon their customs and culinary traditions, the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture are working with different ethnic groups to develop standards and regulations. This approach allows restaurant owners to continue their traditions, while minimizing foodborne illnesses and ensuring the safety of food handlers and customers.

Some foods commonly found in Caribbean, Latin American, Asian and African dining establishments will require evaluation, according to Kimberly Livsey, an FDA regional food specialist who spoke at a symposium at the recent 2008 Institute of Food Technologists’ Annual Meeting & Food Expo.

Livsey also noted that many American customs  may be offensive to ethnic proprietors, which could hinder complete disclosure and thorough inspections.

The bottom line for organic consumers: Treat ethnic restaurants as you would any mainstream establishment, and be conscious of the health risks certain foods may carry.