Sunday, January 07, 2007


By John Stossel

Mary Baker and Ruth Neikirk love to cook. What's more, they love to cook for poor people. They do it frequently, preparing meals at home and bringing them to their church in Virginia. "I love it," Mary says. "I can take a little bit of something, like a soup bone? And I can make a whooole pot of something. Tastes good. With some cornbread you got 'em a meal!"

The people they cook for love it too. But there's a problem. It was "criminal activity." The Fairfax County health department points out that - horrors - Mary and Ruth are actually preparing food and serving it to people! Without a license! That's not safe, said the health department. What if there's food poisoning? Hundreds of pages of regulation say that if you want to serve food to the public, you need a food-manager certificate, a ware-washing machine (with internal baffles), drain-boards, ventilation-hood systems, a sink with at least three compartments, as well as a hand-washing sink, can openers with removable parts, and much more, for page after page.

The county health department wasn't being capricious. It was just enforcing its rules. There had been a complaint. No one had gotten sick, but an "advocate for the homeless" noticed that church kitchens, which appeared sparkling clean to my ABC team, didn't meet "code."

"You've got to be kidding, give us a break," the Rev. Judy Fender told us. "We can fix a nice meal here, but we can't serve it!"

The health department said it was just looking out for the homeless. But did the officials ever think about where street people eat when they don't eat at these churches?

"They've never stopped me from eating out of a dumpster or a trash can," says James, an astute homeless man who understands Henry Hazlitt's "economics in one lesson," namely, look for the secondary results of government policy. The government can close down the church kitchens, but that'll only send the poor to the garbage cans. Is that better? "Some of them take their jobs just a little too seriously," said James. "They got nothing better to do than sit around and write legislation."

James has put his finger on another important point: the perverse incentives facing bureaucrats, who get no credit if they never meddle in our peaceful activities.

An old, near-toothless man agreed with James. "I thought they was crazy. I mean, they're [the church people] helping people, and they're trying to stop it."

Rev. Fender added, "They've set up a situation that you have to have a $40,000 kitchen to feed someone who's going to get their food from questionable sources at best." Rev. Kathleen Chesson said her First Christian Church would not obey the rules. "Our agenda is to feed the hungry. We're going to feed the hungry. That's it."

Before I could confront the county officials about this ridiculous situation, the bad publicity had already prompted a reconsideration. "I got up and saw my morning newspaper and was horrified," said Gerry Connolly, who heads the county government. "I think sometimes the rules overpower common sense."

I asked him, What if the health department had been around when Jesus was feeding the poor? "He might have been, you know, cited," Connolly replied with a laugh. So this story has a happy ending: Connolly exempted churches from the regulations. But let's not celebrate.

"Fairfax is stepping back," James said. "They're saying they're not going to enforce it ... for now. This year. What about next year?"

Again, that's a pretty astute analysis. If you catch the attention of the media, you can bask in your government leader's forgiveness. But what about next year, and what about the rest of us who are still stuck with all the rules?

The rules are well-intended. They're meant to make sure the public is safe. But rule-makers tend to forget that their rules have unintended consequences. And, as James pointed out, eating out of dumpsters is more dangerous than eating at a church without a three-compartment sink.



A rather "correct" portrait but it shows that food "correctness" has a long way to go in Britain. It seems unlikely that even the most gimlet-eyed food fascist will ever be able to defeat British stodge

Oh, the dilemmas of fine dining. Should it be mushy peas or regular? Let's go for the bright green ones. And perhaps a glass of Chenin Blanc to accompany your lunch, sir? Certainly not; the only proper accompaniment to fish and chips is a large mug of tea and a slice of white bread and butter. Of course, sir; the tea will be o1.59 but the bread comes automatically.

This does not feel like an establishment on the brink of collapse. The restaurant is spotless and bright, the staff attentive without being overbearing. The meal comes within five minutes of ordering. It consists of a Himalaya of chips and a haddock the size of a sturgeon, with half a fresh lemon to squeeze over it, all for 6.99 pounds.

Shame about the industrial batter with which it was enrobed in Young's frozen food factory. Still, top marks for the Heinz ketchup and HP Sauce arriving in proper bottles instead of those infuriating little sachets, which never contain enough for those of us hooked on the many derivatives of spirit vinegar.

Are we really in the Little Chef on the A127 in Essex halfway between the East End and Southend, that road of life for the aspiring Cockney? We are, and it is a surprisingly good advertisement for a supposedly failing chain of roadside caffs, a world away from a greasy spoon. Perhaps the weak link is that, on a Wednesday with many motorists returning from New Year breaks, only a dozen of the 60-odd seats are occupied. Mind you, the rather more upmarket pub and restaurant next door isn't much busier.

When Little Chef proposed to slim down the familiar Fat Charlie logo in 2004, there was such an uproar from loyal customers that Charlie stayed fat. But one feature of that attempted revamp towards a healthier image is that menus now include salads and the sausage meat is free-range.

But ordering salad in a Little Chef is like asking for pork scratchings at the Ritz. What the chain does best, and which has silenced carloads of starving children since 1958, is the all-day breakfast. Top of the range, at 6.99 pounds, is the Olympic, built from bacon, sausage, two eggs, mushrooms, saut, potatoes, tomato, fried bread and beans. This may be suitable for a ravenous giant but it is too thrombotic a threat these days to the sedentary and health-conscious. Yet Little Chef claims to sell 13 million sausages and 12 million rashers of bacon a year. Not all to the same driver, of course. They sold some to John Major; the former prime minister famously once stopped to refuel at a Happy Eater, the former sister chain to Little Chef.

When Sam Alper, a caravan manufacturer, opened his first 11-seater Little Chef in Reading 49 years ago, he was aiming for something a cut above the lorry driver's transport caff, and took as his model the informal roadside diners he had seen in the US. The chain had little serious competition for many years, but latterly its market share is thought to have been nibbled away by Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken. If true, this destroys any argument that the motorist has diverted to a healthy-eating route.

A tired image seems to be Little Chef's problem, and personal experience suggests that not all branches are up to the standard of that on the A127. However, the mountain range of french fries went untouched, although the haddock was deep-mined from within its leaden coating. The waiter was most concerned that the meal had not been up to the usual high standard. "Not at all," this diner insisted. "It's just that I've got to squeeze back behind my steering wheel. But I did eat the peas."



Just some problems with the "Obesity" war:

1). It tries to impose behavior change on everybody -- when most of those targeted are not obese and hence have no reason to change their behaviour. It is a form of punishing the innocent and the guilty alike. (It is also typical of Leftist thinking: Scorning the individual and capable of dealing with large groups only).

2). The longevity research all leads to the conclusion that it is people of MIDDLING weight who live longest -- not slim people. So the "epidemic" of obesity is in fact largely an "epidemic" of living longer.

3). It is total calorie intake that makes you fat -- not where you get your calories. Policies that attack only the source of the calories (e.g. "junk food") without addressing total calorie intake are hence pissing into the wind. People involuntarily deprived of their preferred calorie intake from one source are highly likely to seek and find their calories elsewhere.

4). So-called junk food is perfectly nutritious. A big Mac meal comprises meat, bread, salad and potatoes -- which is a mainstream Western diet. If that is bad then we are all in big trouble.

5). Food warriors demonize salt and fat. But we need a daily salt intake to counter salt-loss through perspiration and the research shows that people on salt-restricted diets die SOONER. And Eskimos eat huge amounts of fat with no apparent ill-effects. And the average home-cooked roast dinner has LOTS of fat. Will we ban roast dinners?

6). The foods restricted are often no more calorific than those permitted -- such as milk and fruit-juice drinks.

7). Tendency to weight is mostly genetic and is therefore not readily susceptible to voluntary behaviour change.

8). And when are we going to ban cheese? Cheese is a concentrated calorie bomb and has lots of that wicked animal fat in it too. Wouldn't we all be better off without it? And what about butter? It is just about pure fat. Surely it should be treated as contraband in kids' lunchboxes! [/sarcasm].

Trans fats:

For one summary of the weak science behind the "trans-fat" hysteria, see here. Trans fats have only a temporary effect on blood chemistry and the evidence of lasting harm from them is dubious. By taking extreme groups in trans fats intake, some weak association with coronary heart disease has at times been shown in some sub-populations but extreme group studies are inherently at risk of confounding with other factors and are intrinsically of little interest to the average person.

The use of extreme quintiles (fifths) to examine effects is in fact so common as to be almost universal but suggests to the experienced observer that the differences between the mean scores of the experimental and control groups were not statistically significant -- thus making the article concerned little more than an exercise in deception


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