August 1, 2006
Though I haven’t lived within actual city limits since high school, I’ve always considered myself a proud Chicagoan. (For you foreigners, the concept here known as “Chicagoland” doesn’t refer to a sort of Disneyesque Al Capone Land, but means we’re all members of the same tribe.) Despite the continually swirling scandals, the politicians generally are pragmatists. But lately, especially regarding food, I have to wonder if they’ve been drinking water from, say, the San Francisco or the Madison, WI, municipal systems.
Aldermen from our City of the Big Shoulders have pondered passing legislation on what its citizens can and cannot eat in the past couple of months. In March, the City Council mulled over an ordinance that would ban groceries from selling carbon-monoxide-treated meat, because of the perceived danger to the public. In April, to the chagrin of the foodie community, they outlawed the sale of foie gras at restaurants and grocery stores, due to what the legislation’s sponsor, Ald. Joe Moore, called “the state of cruelty involved” in the delicacy’s production. Now they want to pass a law forbidding the use of trans fats in restaurants.
When it comes to food, I’m pretty much pro-choice and pro-informed consumer. Sure, if a product is actually toxic, legislate away—although I’m pretty sure that falls under FDA’s bailiwick. But rather than forcing everyone to hysterically march to the same drum—What’s next: limiting fried-food sales to Friday? Giving everyone a calorie ration card?—why not codify public education on the subjects? Perhaps require labeling? (“If you haven’t heard it by now, trans fat is not the healthiest food on the planet. We still use the stuff because we can’t find a suitable alternative. If you don’t want to eat it, there’s a Wendy’s two blocks away.”) Or as Colleen McShane, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, says, “...more and more restaurants are going trans fat free. I don’t think the government needs to come in and regulate this. When the consumer is educated, the consumer will demand it, and the restaurants will respond.”
As for the foie gras issue, there’s certainly nothing to stop chefs—or diners—from following Chicago chef Charlie Trotter’s lead; he has stopped serving foie gras in his restaurant, as a personal choice. Or to follow my own philosophy, if it doesn’t taste good enough to make up for what it is, I won’t eat it.
Carbon-monoxide-flushed meat? Well, no one seems to blink an eye at any other modified-atmosphere technology. It seems to be the fear-of-technology syndrome that plagues irradiation. I’m not sure how big the specter of increased meat spoilage looms, but frankly, if someone can’t recognize spoiled meat by any other means than color, they’re in for a surprise whether CO packaging is banned or not.
What makes this doubly painful is that the Institute of Food Technologists calls Chicago home. It seems like someone from the organization that focuses on the science might talk some sense into the City Council. Meanwhile, we could change Sandburg’s famous poem:
Player with Unnecessary Rules and the Nation’s Food Cop; Intrusive, overreaching, ill-informed; City of the Big Noses.
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