Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Rise of the Health Nazis

Yes, yes, I know – Godwin’s law and all that. But the term is so perfect that I choose to use it, even while recognizing that the analogy is obviously absurd. I refer, of course, to the full range of health and longevity fetishists who push for ever more intrusive regulation of what we eat, drink or otherwise take into our bodies. The folks who are encouraging more lawsuits against fast food restaurants on behalf of people who claim McDonald’s made them fat – as though Ronald put a gun to their head and made them eat big macs and fat-saturated fries 3 times a day.

The latest target of my ire comes via Radley Balko, citing a NY Times article about that city’s health inspectors forcing restauranteurs to stop preparing food using a technique called sous vide – vacuum-packed foods slow cooked in simmering water. And they did so without a single complaint of any food-borne illness resulting from it:

What’s been fascinating the city’s chefs lately is a technique long used in France called sous vide, in which serving portions of seasoned and vacuum-packed food are submerged in barely simmering water. This long, slow and low-temperature cooking makes the food taste more intensely of what it should taste like, preserves its nutritional value and often creates a texture of unspeakable silkiness that everyone ought to experience.

Except the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene won’t allow it. In recent weeks, having caught wind of the use of this new technique — not by a single report of food-borne illness but rather through the restaurant coverage of newspapers and magazines — inspectors have shut down the system at many restaurants, standing by to make sure that chefs have destroyed the shrink-wrapped food, fining them for serving sous vide dishes and forbidding the use of the equipment used in their production.

You may feel about sous vide the way most New Yorkers apparently feel about squeegee guys, turnstile-jumping and graffiti on subway cars. But for those of us who still cherish the right to order a rare steak and a raw oyster (in the right restaurants), who have been known occasionally to cross the street in the middle of the block instead of at a crosswalk, the health department’s attitude toward food safety feels alarmist.

I’m with Balko – the very notion that the city of New York has a department devoted to “mental hygiene” is creepy enough on its own. Whatever happened to personal responsibility? Anyone with the desire to order food prepared sous vide knows the nature of the technique. They also likely know that if the food is contaminated before it is prepared in the package, this cooking technique may well not kill off the micro-organisms that contaminated it and they risk food-borne illness as a result.

The restaurant, of course, knows this too and so extra care is taken to make sure that the food is handled safely. A restaurant is not like some big corporation with a corporate office a billion miles from the negative effects their practices might cause. A restaurant that makes its customers sick doesn’t stay in business, period. That is especially true of a fine dining establishment, whose customers are extraordinarily fickle.

The fact is that virtually everyone chooses to eat risky foods. They may be short term risky or long term risky. On the long term risky side you can everything in the junk food category and most of the world’s great dishes. Biscuits and sausage gravy won’t make you sick, but in the long run it’s certainly not helping your arteries any. Likewise grease-laden french fries. And don’t even get me started about my beloved BBQ, most of which is dripping in fat. What else could make it taste so good? But it’s delicious and we choose to eat it anyway. We have that right – after all, our bodies belong to us, not to the government.

On the short term risky side, you have undercooked hamburgers, eggs sunny side up, sashimi and many other types of food that, if not handled properly, can cause food-borne illness within 3 days of being eaten. But just try and find a real Caesar’s salad these days. Does anyone even remember what a real Caesar’s salad is? It includes raw or coddled eggs. Good luck finding a restaurant that still serves it that way, even with the invention of egg pasteurizing.

This is no different than people who choose to bungee jump, ride motorcycles, downhill ski or go hunting with Dick Cheney. Those who engage in such activities know they’re taking a risk, but that risk is acceptable to them because the reward, at least to them, outweighs that risk. The government needs to understand that we don’t need a nanny or another mother. We are perfectly capable of making those decisions for ourselves. And if we make the wrong decision, we’re the ones who will have to pay the price for it.

Comments

  1. #1 Ian Gibson
    April 28, 2006

    I agree with you that people need to take responsibility for what they eat, although I do think that a strong case can be made for regulating junk food marketing when it is aimed at children, and removing vending machines from schools, etc.

    Adults, however, should be able to take care of themselves.

  2. #2 flatlander100
    April 28, 2006

    You can’t order raw oysters anymore? Where, tell me where this affront to all that’s holy has happened. Not in New Orleans. Not in Seattle. Or Portland. Or San Francisco. Where is this violation of the moral order of the universe being tolerated?

    As for adults being able to understand the risks involved in ordering food prepared a certain way, or in bungee jumping, sky diving, etc., you are of course, right. Still, based on the occasional news story, such folks sometimes attempt to sue somebody, anybody, when the risks they accepted in the first place turn out badly for them. My all time favorite in that regard was a party of hikers in the wilderness of Mt. Ranier National Park who got into some trouble…lost, or broken leg, I fogret exactly what. It took some time for the Park Service to find and extract them from their dilemma. At which point they sued the Park Service because they had tried to call for help on their cell phones, which had not worked where they were in the wilderness. I think the basis of the suit, such as it was, was that the Park Service had an obligation to inform them when it issued their backcountry permit that cell phone coverage might not extend to the trails. No, I am not making this up.

    Given the propensity to sue the nearest deep pockets when something goes bad, I can understand why city health departments might have a tendency to massively over-regulate in the name of protecting the public coffers. No, that does not justify the over-regulation. Just offering a possible reason why those in city health departments might think they need to be so proactive in these matters.

  3. #3 boltgirl
    April 28, 2006

    My initial reaction was that health and personal safety legislation has a place if it reduces deletrious effects on everyone’s insurance premiums, but then I thought about it for two seconds and realized that (1) the premiums will continue their trajectory not just through the roof but into the ionosphere regardless of how many people eat raw meat or refuse to wear seatbelts, and (2) it turns out after all that I believe adults have the right to make choices about their personal safety that don’t unduly affect others (unless they’re riding with me, in which case the belts go on or the truck doesn’t move).

    Does the usual menu disclaimer about undercooked meat and eggs not protect restaurants from lawsuits, or would an actual signed release form be required?

  4. #4 Pieter B
    April 28, 2006

    Over the past couple of decades I’ve noticed a change in the attitude of the local restaurant inspectors; admittedly, this is anecdotal, because I’m not a food-service professional, just someone who works the occasional fair or festival. It used to be that the inspectors were tolerant of the realities of short-term food-booth conditions, and wanted to make sure that reasonable precautions were taken. Lately, it seems that there has been an influx of bacteriophobes into the profession. As an example, I saw an inspector check the temperature of a sauce in a steam table with the standard quick-reading thermometer, then go to the sink, pull out an egg timer, and scrub the shaft of the thermometer for exactly three minutes. These people seem to be the majority or very close to it in many departments.

    The company for which I work has a great cafeteria staff, and used to have barbecue at luchtime one day a week during the warmer months. No more, because the health department decided that if you’re cooking things outside, a fly might land on the meat, and that was too great a risk to the public health to be condoned. I’m told by the executive chef that the inspector asked him quite seriously behind closed doors, “Be honest with me — you wouldn’t actually eat any of that stuff, would you?”

    Just because you can eat off the floor at someone’s house doesn’t mean you’d want to sit down at their table.

  5. #5 Pieter B
    April 28, 2006

    they sued the Park Service because they had tried to call for help on their cell phones, which had not worked where they were in the wilderness.

    I recall a suit against the Park Service back in the ’70s by someone who survived a lightning strike, but with some permanent injuries. The basis was that if you shouldn’t stand on a mountaintop watching a thunderstorm, there should be signs on all mountaintops warning you not to stand there during a thunderstorm.

    A quick Google shows me I was sslightly mistaken — one person was killed, one survived with neurological damage. http://www.time.com/time/archive/preview/0,10987,916362,00.html

  6. #6 Ed Brayton
    April 28, 2006

    boltgirl-

    The problem with the “their health problems raise everyone’s insurance costs” argument is that it can be used to justify any regulation, no matter how ridiculous. Follow that to its logical conclusion and we’ll all be living in government-mandated bubbles that prevent any and all illness. And all human interaction or fun.

  7. #7 Ed Brayton
    April 28, 2006

    Pieter B wrote:

    The company for which I work has a great cafeteria staff, and used to have barbecue at luchtime one day a week during the warmer months. No more, because the health department decided that if you’re cooking things outside, a fly might land on the meat, and that was too great a risk to the public health to be condoned.

    And yet, millions of families cook dinner on their grills every weekend without filling up the morgues and hospitals. We managed to survive for millenia without refrigeration and while cooking meat over an open flame and now, suddenly, it’s too unsafe to even contemplate. How do you suppose the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene would handle the process of making prosciutto crudo? This is a raw ham cured in salt in the open air for months, then covered in salted lard and hung in the open air for up to two years. It’s just about the most delicious ham you could ever have, but your average county health department would go crazy over it. Yet this technique goes back to Roman times and people have somehow managed to survive and even make it one of the staples of the Italian diet.

  8. #8 flatlander100
    April 28, 2006

    Pieter B:
    Thank you for the story. And the link.

  9. #9 atari24
    April 28, 2006

    Damn, this is just insulting to every thinking adult. How long before we are forced to wear helmets at all time, wear masks to avoid airborne illness, or fined for going by the “5 second rule”. Or maybe we’ll be forced to wear seatbelts while driving. Oh, wait a minute…

  10. #10 Lab Cat
    April 28, 2006

    Didn’t the problem arise when some one sued MuckDonalds over coffee that was too hot? I was still living in England at the time, and we found that highly amusing. My Dad, who is a keen coffee drinker, said that normally coffee was sold too cold!

    As a food scientist, my speciality is food chemistry not safety, I am aware of the arguments for and against regulation. You do need some kind of regulation – what is to stop someone not so knowledgable about the risks preparing food incorrectly and making people ill? And not every one is aware of the risks involved or understands them, unfortunately.

    As for:
    “… We managed to survive for millenia without refrigeration and while cooking meat over an open flame and now, suddenly, it’s too unsafe to even contemplate.”

    Life expectancy was also much shorter before refrigeration. Also people were more likely to eat food that was locally grown and locally prepared. This does make a difference to the safety of the food supply.

  11. #11 boltgirl
    April 28, 2006

    The problem with the “their health problems raise everyone’s insurance costs” argument is that it can be used to justify any regulation, no matter how ridiculous.

    Yep, I’m on it. As I said, it took all of a couple of seconds of semi-serious thought to discount the validity of that argument. In the other direction, I do enjoy reading about how becoming a nation of compulsive hand-washers has made us ever more susceptible to minor bugs our hardier and dirtier ancestors shrugged off without a thought.

  12. #12 ArtK
    April 28, 2006

    Reminds me a bit of some Xerox-lore, back in the days when my dad was a health inspector.

    The Cowboy after OSHA:
    http://www.hsegroup.com/hse/text/cowboy.htm

  13. #13 Fredrock Flintstone
    April 28, 2006

    Or maybe we’ll be forced to wear seatbelts while driving

    While I oppose seat belt laws (especially as a resident of a state, Massachusetts, where legislators passed the law, the voters tossed it out via ballot initiative, and the legislators somehow passed another one that still stands), I can see at least one public safety-related justification for them: Seat belts don’t necessarily function only to preserve the safety of the driver (which of course should be up to the driver), they do serve to keep the driver in their seat after a collision and theoretically more able to continue to control the vehicle and prevent injury to others.

  14. #14 Algerine
    April 28, 2006

    I think this is a bit of knee-jerk reaction here, gang. First, the piece was written by a chef, one that sounded like she had a bit of an axe to grind. And talk about not seeing the big picture:

    The class, itself, however, is like a 15-hour horror movie spread over five days in which the chain-saw wielders and silence-of-the-lambs serial-killing psychopaths are played by microbes, botulism, salmonella, standing water, pots of soup at a tepid 130 degrees, toast buttered by an ungloved hand and so forth.

    Yeah, it may be a little over the top for someone with a college ed, but how many dishwashers have that level of knowledge or intelligence? Or burger flippers at the local greasy spoon? There’s a real good reason some training films lack subtlety; some people just can’t comprehend it.

    The more important point is that it sounded to me like NYC was running a restaurant inspection version of a speed trap. Come on, $300 fine for empty roll of paper towels? She even states the health department hasn’t done up regs for sous vide. I don’t know about all you others out there with some micro knowledge, but if someone was telling me about cooking something vaccuum-packed in a warm water bath, I’d be thinking ‘hmmm, must be wanting to grow something anaerobic.’ So until the regs get updated, the department is looking to cash in.

    Oh, and Lab Cat? Regarding the legendary McDonald’s hot coffee case, as Paul Harvey would say, ‘here’s the rest of the story.’ McDonalds deliberately made their coffee 30-50 degrees hotter than coffee you’d find at your average restaurant at that time, so they weren’t exactly serving up your average cup of hot joe. There were several hundred complaints to McD’s regarding the coffee temperature prior to this case, so they knew there was a problem. The Shriners Burn Institute had even warned McDonalds that their coffee was too hot and could cause third-degree burns within 2-3 seconds of contact. So McDonald’s deliberately performed an action that was outside industry standards, knew it could cause injury, and failed to remedy the situation when it was brought to their attention. That’s why the jury found them guilty of “willful, reckless, malicious or wanton conduct.”

  15. #15 Ed Brayton
    April 28, 2006

    Algerine wrote:

    The more important point is that it sounded to me like NYC was running a restaurant inspection version of a speed trap. Come on, $300 fine for empty roll of paper towels? She even states the health department hasn’t done up regs for sous vide. I don’t know about all you others out there with some micro knowledge, but if someone was telling me about cooking something vaccuum-packed in a warm water bath, I’d be thinking ‘hmmm, must be wanting to grow something anaerobic.’ So until the regs get updated, the department is looking to cash in.

    I think htat’s exactly what is happening. They’re not really concerned about the health of the customers, they’re just trying to make money. And that’s a big problem, it seems to me.

  16. #16 SkookumPlanet
    April 28, 2006

    Lab Cat
    The McDonald’s coffee lawsuit wasn’t frivolous. A plaintiff’s attorney explained it to me, and I suspect most American’s, given the facts and the trial, would say the jury reached their verdict through a reasonable process.

    I’m not going to spend time looking it up on the net, but the jury awarded the woman about $3.3 million. The overwhelming bulk were punitive damages. However, the woman suffered severe injuries. She had to undergo multiple skin-graft surgeries to her genitals. Mull that over a while…..ow-ee.

    The media, as usual with reportage of trials, did a terrible job with the story. I witnessed a local news anchor roll his eyes when he first read the news item. If your dad got cold coffee it was from a franchise in rebellion — Mikey-D has international temperature requirements for coffee that actually are the lawsuit roots — they are too high. I can highlight the case and why McDonald’s probably deserved $3 million of punishment, if anyone’s interested, though it’s second person.

    Right as I’m posting this I noticed Algerine’s post. Some added Mickey-D details. They had seriously injured about 150 people around the world w/coffee. Plaintiffs put experts on the stand who said if McD lowered their coffee temp by, I think, 10 degress, no less sanitary, taste as good, and no more severe burns of customers. McD simply ignored all this in trial.

    The 3 mill? The jury, which only gets instructions that punitive damages are to discourage defendent from recommitting act, used something like McD coffee revenue world-wide for a day. Something like that.

    McDonalds came across like, “Hey! We’re McDonalds. We rule. We can do whatever we want.” The award was heavily cut on appeal.

  17. #17 Algerine
    April 28, 2006

    Exactly. You can argue it’s City Hall screwing the little guy to fatten its coffers (which is how I see this specific case) or you can argue it’s a case of laws not keeping pace with the latest thing (sous vide everywhere else), but it’s certainly not an example of “intrusive regulation of what we eat, drink or otherwise take into our bodies.”

    Frankly, this whole sous vide thing reminds me too much of those packets of creamed chipped beef my mom used to boil up when I was a kid. Blecch.

  18. #18 Treban
    April 28, 2006

    Yep, I’m on it. As I said, it took all of a couple of seconds of semi-serious thought to discount the validity of that argument. In the other direction, I do enjoy reading about how becoming a nation of compulsive hand-washers has made us ever more susceptible to minor bugs our hardier and dirtier ancestors shrugged off without a thought.

    It’s funny, my roomie likes to leave the butter out all the time – we had a friend over for dinner a month or so ago who got violently ill the next day. His doctor thought it likely he got food poisoning from the butter. Apparently if you eat rancid butter all the time (I prefer it that way it spreads better) you develope a resistence to the bacteria – if you don’t it can make you ill. I also work in construction/remodeling, I don’t a;ways get the chance to waash up before I eat lunch – I regularly am working in houses where I have remnoved most of the fixtures and such. I do not get sick very easy – when I do it is usualy violent but short lived. This suits me just fine because if I don’t work I don’t eat – I can’t afford more than a day off due to illness and I hate getting on ladders when I’m sick.

    The idea of hrmeticly sealed food puches being slow simmered being a heath risk is ridiculous. Vacuum sealed food pouches are great. I can get middle eastern meals in ouches for the same price as “American” frozen dinners – as apposed to $4-6 dollars for a frozen middle eastern dish that has to be transported frozen, from overseas. I don’t get them often because even at $1-1.5 a pop they are a little steep for me but I have them as a treat a lot more often than I did when I had to buy frozen. There is no wat for any bacteria to be an isse until they are opened.

  19. #19 Pieter B
    April 29, 2006

    There is no way for any bacteria to be an issue until they are opened.

    The problem is that if the food is carelessly prepared before being vacuum-sealed, live bacteria can be inside the package. If the package isn’t heated above 140° for a sufficient period of time, there could be quite a lot of growth. Solution? Temperature-regulated simmering pots.

    I hadn’t heard of the sous vide technique prior to today, but I have a vacuum sealer and I’m going to read up on it. Hmmmmm…

  20. #20 raj
    April 29, 2006

    I do enjoy reading about how becoming a nation of compulsive hand-washers has made us ever more susceptible to minor bugs our hardier and dirtier ancestors shrugged off without a thought.

    Our “hardier and dirtier ancestors” probably didn’t know about the minor bugs. And, just to point out, they probably didn’t live as long as we do, either. Taken to its logical conclusion, sanitation (illustratively, clean water and sewage treatment) would be bad for us.

    There is no way for any bacteria to be an issue until they are opened.

    Not necessarily. There are anaerobic bacteria, some of whose toxins can be quite dangerous. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anaerobe

  21. #21 raj
    April 29, 2006

    Oh, and, by the way, raw oysters are available in at least some restaurants here in the Boston area, too. At least they are listed on the menus–I wouldn’t eat them, myself.

  22. #22 Caledonian
    April 29, 2006

    Clean water and sewage treatment eliminates major bugs. Constantly washing with germicidal soaps kills off harmless strains and opens niches for harmful ones to move in.

    Careless antibiotic use has created resistant strains. Does that mean that antibiotics are bad? No, just stupid people.

  23. #23 Bill Ware
    April 29, 2006

    Wasn’t the problem with heating food in plastic, that if it wasn’t “microwave safe,” volatile carcinogins could migrate from the plastic into the food? Perhaps that’s the concern, not bacteria.

  24. #24 Treban
    April 29, 2006

    The problem is that if the food is carelessly prepared before being vacuum-sealed, live bacteria can be inside the package.

    If the food was prepared carelessly and bacteria was introduced prior to sealing the pouches inflate with gas and either burst or look like a baloon. If you atempted to cook one it would either leak or explode.

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