Bloomberg bans again!

Over at the Examiner I take a look at Michael Bloomberg’s latest attempt to make life worse for smokers, a ban in parks and beaches:

It’s no wonder that some non-smoking residents support the ban. They have nothing to lose and they’ve been hit with fear-mongering propaganda for years, such as Action on Smoking and Health’s dire warning that “If you can smell it, it could be killing you,”or even worse, uncritical reports about “thirdhand smoke,” the residue left behind on room surfaces when tobacco is lit. So firmly has the toxicity of tobacco smoke been in implanted in the public’s mind that activists no longer feel the need to demonstrate that it causes harm; the mere ability to detect its traces with fancy lab equipment is enough to raise a panic.

Whole thing here.


A false sense of transparency?

New York City is implementing a new system under which the letter grades given to restaurants by health inspectors must be prominently posted and in which further details are available online. This seems like a good thing: The more consumers know, the better the market works. But to some extent this just replaces ignorance about what goes on in the kitchen with meta-ignorance about what the grades signify. The letter grades are only as good as the inspection regime, and if consumers don’t know what the grades mean, then they may not be helpful. An article in The New York Times looks at some of the complications:

Under the former system, restaurants received points for each violation; a total score over 28 was considered a failing grade. But under the new system, in which 0 to 13 points gets an A, 14 to 27 points merits a B, and 28 or more is a C, officials have softened some rules, like those governing the temperatures of food held for service. And they will not count certain non-food-related violations, like burned-out light bulbs or improperly posted signs, toward the grade, although operators could still have to pay a fine.

So a restaurant that may have received 15 points under the old rules might score, say, 9 under the new ones, said Andrew Rigie, director of operations at the New York State Restaurant Association, a trade group that has been lobbying against the letter grades.

“That’s a big problem,” Mr. Rigie said. A person seeing an old 15-point score on the Web site “would determine that restaurant to be a B-graded restaurant, but there’s a possibility that under the new system it would have an A.”

It’s good that the city is not counting some non-food related violations against the grade, but one has to wonder what else goes into the score. There are 1,200 possible points that restaurants are graded on. Is the difference between a 13-point A and a 14-point B really that meaningful? Or even a 5-point A and a 20-point B? I have no idea, and I suspect that most diners don’t either.

I wrote about this when the new regulations were first announced, noting that the rule:

confuses the measurement with what we’re trying to measure. What we should care about is actual food safety, not the letter grades restaurants are receiving. If the grades aren’t highly correlated with preventing customers from getting sick, then restaurants are just wasting time and money to comply with arcane regulations and to create the illusion of safety.

To this end, making detailed reports available online is a good step. I’m more skeptical that the letter grades will provide useful information. This is the same city, after all, that has cracked down on sous vide cooking and putting egg whites in cocktails (to say nothing of banning trans-fats). Should we trust the experts to identify the most salient concerns with these grades, or should we instead ignore the differences between As and Bs and focus on the worst offenders?


The nanny state vs. egg drinks

The NYT explains the recent egg controversy at the excellent Pegu Club:

Nevertheless, on that fateful evening, an inspector from the New York City Department of Health cited Pegu Club, at 77 West Houston Street in SoHo, for serving the MarTEAni without telling the customer who ordered it that it contained raw egg. The notice said it was a serious infraction that required a court appearance.

Raw eggs are among the ingredients most fervently embraced by cocktail revivalists who have sought out new techniques and circled back to classic recipes. And the MarTEAni is a signature drink at a bar that is seen as a paragon of the new cocktailians.

Serving raw eggs in drinks is, thankfully, not illegal. You just have to tell customers that the drink contains them. A simple note on the menu serves as adequate warning. Unless a customer orders without looking at the menu:

The inspector reported that the customer who asked for the MarTEAni didn’t order it from the menu and that the bartender didn’t mention raw eggs were in it. But the bartender on the night of the inspection, Kenta Goto, said that no MarTEAnis were served while the inspector was present. The inspector who signed the violation sheet, Nathalie Louissaint, could not be reached for comment.

This puts a ridiculous burden on bartenders. How is one supposed to know if a customer has looked at the menu? If a regular comes in and orders the drink, must one warn him of the eggs every time in case a city inspector is watching? Rather than take these chances Pegu Club has taken the drink off the list, a loss to craft cocktail drinkers in the city.

As with many food dishes, raw eggs play an important role in giving cocktails texture. Sensitive buyers should beware and avoid egg drinks if they’re worried, just as they would avoid housemade mayonnaise or other products. For the rest of us a simple menu disclaimer should suffice.

If you’d like to try the drink in question, the recipe is here. Be sure to warn yourself about the raw egg before proceeding.


War on flavor continues

Hot on the heels of the FDA’s ban on flavored cigarettes (menthol excluded, of course), other governments are taking even more drastic steps against flavored tobacco. First Canada:

Canada has banned the manufacture, importation and sale of most flavored cigarettes and small cigars, which have been slammed as little more than an enticement to get children to start smoking. [Again, menthol excluded.]

The law, which came into effect on Thursday, was backed by both government and opposition lawmakers. It also bans tobacco advertising in newspapers and magazines, closing a loophole that had allowed ads in publications that claimed they were read only by adults.

Then New York City:

The council, by a count of 46-1, voted to ban the sale of all flavored tobacco in the city, with the exception of tobacco used in pipes and hookahs. This goes a step further than the recent FDA ban, which banned flavored cigarettes (including cloves, but not menthol), because it bans flavored little cigars and chewing tobacco. Mayor Bloomberg has 10 days to decide to sign or veto the measure. If signed, the ban could go into effect in 120 days.

These bans are, in essence, forbidding the processing of tobacco to make it taste good. This sets a dangerous precedent for premium cigars. Might cask-aged cigars be next? Why allow leaves to be cured at all? After all, the aging process “masks” the harsh flavors of tobacco just as surely as adding a dollop of fruit-flavor does.

And after we do that, why not ban the flavoring of any other product that can be unhealthy?

[Via The Stogie Guys.]


About those calorie counts…

An initial study of the effects of mandated calorie counts in New York City chain restaurants finds that the law isn’t delivering on its promise to reduce consumption:

It found that about half the customers noticed the calorie counts, which were prominently posted on menu boards. About 28 percent of those who noticed them said the information had influenced their ordering, and 9 out of 10 of those said they had made healthier choices as a result.

But when the researchers checked receipts afterward, they found that people had, in fact, ordered slightly more calories than the typical customer had before the labeling law went into effect, in July 2008.

And, ominously:

“I think it does show us that labels are not enough,” Brian Elbel, an assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine and the lead author of the study, said in an interview.

The results are preliminary of course, and in my view the law is unmerited even it does turn out to cause some reduction. But still, if this is a typical result the case for spreading similar laws elsewhere or even federally is weaker than ever.

[Via Baylen.]

Calorie counts for all, like it or not


Bloomberg bans free coffee

The latest bit of nanny state over-reaching comes from New York City, where authorities have decided to take yet another pleasure away from cigar smokers:

The owner of a Financial District tobacco shop was amazed to learn he was violating the law by offering his customers a free cup of joe while they legally puffed away on his cigars. […]

Health officials had no problem with all the cigars his customers were puffing on — a handful of businesses, including Nastri’s, are exempt from Mayor Bloomberg’s anti-smoking laws — but decided a $9,000 coffee machine was grounds for closing the place down. […]

Nastri found himself in a classic Catch-22 situation.

To serve coffee — even free coffee — he needs a permit to operate a food-service establishment. But smoking is banned in food-service establishments.

Realizing that resistance would be futile, Nastri had the machine removed.

The inspectors were presumably acting within the letter of the law, but this is clearly another attempt at harassing smoking businesses and making them as uncomfortable as possible for the people who frequent them.

[Hat tip to Jonathan Blanks.]


A is for adult, which is what we’ll never be

New York City’s paternalist in chief, Michael Bloomberg, has announced that his city will now require restaurants to prominently post their safety inspection grades. Mary Cheh has introduced a similar bill in DC. On the surface it seems like a good idea. Here’s a writer at Slashfood, for example, a site not exactly known for its critical thinking about regulation:

So will this work? When Los Angeles County enacted the letter grading system back in 1998, only 40 percent of its restaurants received “A” grades. By 2006, 83 percent were meeting the standard. I have faith — it will take some time, but restaurants and consumers alike will benefit.

LA’s results are likely true, but it confuses the measurement with what we’re trying to measure. What we should care about is actual food safety, not the letter grades restaurants are receiving. If the grades aren’t highly correlated with preventing customers from getting sick, then restaurants are just wasting time and money to comply with arcane regulations and to create the illusion of safety.

Jessica at Crispy on the Outside looked up some her favorite places:

I actually read the health department reports and find that most of my favorite awesome restaurants have some infraction, usually that there is no “food manager” at the restaurant when the food police show up, which would get them a “C”.

Is having a “food manager” on duty during all business hours a cost effective way to improve outcomes? Maybe, maybe not. We do know that it drives up expenses for restaurants and training time for employees. Before we give restaurants a scarlet letter for violating this rule, we might want to find out if it actually accomplishes anything. And that’s just one rule of many.

Marc Fisher notes at the Post that proposed system relies too heavily on city inspectors:

[…] a fair and useful system would depend more on transparency than on the blunt instrument of letter grades that may not represent anything more than the misdeeds of a single vindictive, corrupt or incompetent inspector. Is there a D.C. resident who cannot imagine that their city might be home to such an inspector?

Add bribes to the higher costs of business a letter grade system might impose on DC restaurants.

The irony of this regulation and related laws about posting nutritional data is that they’re coming at a time when information technology makes them less necessary than ever. We’re not far off from the time when GPS-enabled internet phones will tell you everything you’d like to know about a restaurant as you pause in front of its window. Cities should focus on making their inspection data readily available electronically; the usefulness, if any, of current measures is limited to a few years before technology will render it obsolete.

Lastly, the nannies behind this law have no sense of aesthetics. I’ve eaten at dives and I’ve eaten at high-end establishments. When I went for banh mi in the Virginia suburbs and watched my friend flick a roach of his wrist while we waited for our sandwiches, I knew what I was getting into. (Our lunch was delicious, by the way.) Similarly, when I go out for an expensive dinner at a nice restaurant, I trust the chef not to send me home sick. Pasting a tacky city inspection certificate in the window just detracts from the experience.


Ban the Bacardi?

I’ve never been a fan of flair bartending. I’d much rather have an accurately measured, balanced cocktail than watch some jackass spill flavored vodka all over the floor, twirl bottles in the air, or set his customer on fire:

A bartender’s flaming drink stunt at a popular Upper West Side bar left a Manhattan woman “engulfed in flames” and horribly burned while “Great Balls of Fire” was playing on the jukebox, court papers charge.

Lauren Sclafani, 31, says she suffered second- and third-degree burns on her face, arms and hands thanks to the Bacardi 151 stunt at Brother Jimmy’s gone terribly wrong…

As “Great Balls of Fire” came on the jukebox, the bartender poured 151-proof rum across the bar and deliberately lit it on fire, according to a lawsuit she filed against the bar. The flame blew black into the bottle, turning it into a “flamethrower,” said Sclafani’s lawyer, Tom Moore.

“I was just about to leave, and the next thing you know, I’m lit on fire,” Sclafani said. “My face was burning, my hands were burning, my clothes were on fire. I was just praying to make it stop.”

It’s a horrible story and I hope the victim wins truckloads of money in her lawsuit against the restaurant. Yet my sympathy does not extend to this:

The bar pulled the drink off its shelves at all its locations the next day. Sclafani’s lawyer said they’re hoping to 86 the 151-proof drink everywhere.

“This is a product that has no value except for this kind of purpose,” Moore said. “One hundred proof is serious enough for anybody.”

Unlikely, I hope, but New York City’s not exactly known for its laissez-faire approach to regulating bars and restaurants.

[Via Behind the Stick.]


Cart watch: NYC edition

You can lead a fat guy to a fruit cart, but can you make him eat? New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is betting that he can. The city is issuing permits for new food carts that will only be permitted to sell fruits and vegetables:

The carts, which are expected to start appearing on the streets later this summer, are restricted to low-income areas that have the fewest sources of fresh produce in the city.

Coming in the wake of the city’s indoor smoking ban, a campaign to get restaurants to eliminate the use of trans-fats, and a requirement that menus list calories, the Green Carts project is Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s latest public-health crusade.

This isn’t a terrible idea, but before lamenting the lack of fruit available in NYC food carts it’s worth noting that the city has been restricting the supply of new permits since the 1970s. If the city had been more willing to open the cart market to competition, it might see more variety in what gets sold (as has recently happened here in DC). Strict regulations and frequent fines also drive up the costs of doing business, possibly pushing fruit carts off the market.

Fruit carts have the advantage of being much cheaper to purchase: $1,000 compared to $15-30,000 for carts designed to process prepared food or coffee, according to this fascinating article from New York magazine. The fact that vendors aren’t buying them suggests that on-the-go diners would rather have stuff like pretzels, hot dogs, and kebabs, thank you very much.

There is also the fear that the subsidized fruit carts will hurt the revenues of grocers. If they drive grocers out of business, they might even lessen access to produce in some neighborhoods.

In short, subsidizing green carts might marginally drive up fruit and vegetable consumption, but it’s silly for the city to be playing favorites. Freeing the cart market would likely do much more to encourage variety and deliver the products people actually want.

[Via Coldmud.]