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Government Impossible

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Restaurant: Impossible is a popular show on the Food Network. I don’t watch much television. Not only do I have more writing projects in the works than I have time for, but the political shows on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox that I should be watching because I write about politics make me either mad or nauseated, and sometimes both. But I must confess that I enjoy taking a break from writing to watch Restaurant: Impossible.

In each episode of Restaurant: Impossible, Chef Robert Irvine faces the daunting task of “saving” a failing restaurant from impending failure — in just two days and with only $10,000.

On the first day, he conducts a thorough assessment of the restaurant. He observes the chefs, samples the food (and usually spits it out), talks to the owner and the employees, analyzes the menu, critiques the décor, inspects the kitchen, checks the freezer inventory, and consults with his design team on changes to be made to the restaurant’s flooring, decorations, light fixtures, wall colors, tables, seating, and bar. Then everything is taken out of the restaurant — some of it after Chef Irvine takes a sledgehammer to it.

After the design team and its workers spend all night ripping up carpet, sanding, painting, building, and repairing and replacing various items, Irvine checks on their progress at the beginning of the second day. He revises the menu, retrains the staff, instructs the chefs, reorganizes the kitchen, gives further instruction to his design team, and eventually overcomes all the drama and the unforeseen obstacles that make the show interesting to watch. After some quick marketing in the local community, the restaurant has a grand re-opening in the evening. Tears flow when the owner sees the “new” restaurant spring from what looked impossible to fix.

For me, there is one part of the show that brings forth another emotion. That is when Irvine inspects the restaurant’s kitchen and almost throws up. I myself feel nauseated when I see the roaches (dead and alive); the dead rats; the insect and rodent droppings; the mold in the ice machine; the undated, unrefrigerated, or rotten food; the grease; and the filth. It seems as though in every other show Irvine states that this is the worst restaurant kitchen he has ever seen.

Without fail, every time my wife and I are watching together and see a disgusting restaurant kitchen we turn to each other and say, “Where are the health inspectors?”

Just as the federal government has its agricultural inspectors, so every state, county, and city in the United States has health inspectors who make periodic inspections of restaurants. So how could any health inspector who had at least one good eye miss what seemed so obvious? Don’t we rely on those inspections to keep restaurants clean and sanitary and to keep us from getting sick?

My state of Florida has a Department of Business and Professional Regulation. One of its many agencies is the Division of Hotels and Restaurants. It is responsible for licensing, inspecting, and regulating public-lodging and food-service establishments in Florida under Chapter 509 of the Florida Statutes. Its mission is to “protect the health and safety of the public by providing the industry with quality inspections and fair regulation.” It also licenses and regulates elevators and escalators. Each of Florida’s 67 counties is assigned to one of seven Bureau of Sanitation and Safety Inspections district offices.

According to its annual report, the Division of Hotels and Restaurants

  • Was authorized 296 positions to provide program services and an operating budget of $19,249,720.
  • Conducted a total of 162,953 public food-service and lodging-establishment inspections of the 85,148 licensed food-service and lodging establishments to ensure sanitation and safety standards.
  • Performed more than 98 percent of the statutorily required inspections for public food-service and lodging establishments.
  • Cited a total of 724,864 violations of sanitary standards in public food-service and lodging establishments.
  • Logged 5,649 consumer complaints.
  • Assessed $2,323,110 in fines and collected $2,101,251.

The Bureau of Sanitation and Safety Inspections is authorized to assess fines up to $1,000 per violation and to suspend or revoke an operator’s license. In addition to routine safety and sanitation inspections, the bureau performs:

  • Opening inspections for new establishments and changes of ownership.
  • “Call-back” inspections on establishments cited for critical violations with a specified time period to verify the correction of deficiencies.
  • Food-service inspections for alcoholic-beverage license applicants.
  • Complaint investigations.
  • Foodborne-illness investigations in coordination with the Florida Department of Health.

The Division of Hotels and Restaurants takes credit for the significant reduction in foodborne illness in Florida over the past 15 years: “Continued important reductions in foodborne illnesses indicate that Division of Hotels and Restaurants [sic] aggressive attention to science based policies and effective enforcement strategies is achieving positive results and improving public health and safety.” “Protecting the public and preventing foodborne illness” is said to be “the driving force behind the division’s food safety program.”

There are a number of persistent and relentless myths concerning the importance of government health inspections, as opposed to leaving restaurant inspections up to the free market.

The first myth is that the federal government should have something to do with food safety. Although the federal government does not inspect restaurants, the annual report of the Florida Division of Hotels and Restaurants mentions that the agency participates in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s voluntary “National Retail Food Regulatory Program Standards.” It refers to “the FDA Food Code.” It claims that the agency has “long been recognized by the Food and Drug Administration as a national leader in food safety.” But since when does the U.S. Constitution authorize the federal government to have an FDA in the first place? The federal government has no authority to issue nutrition guidelines, make food pyramids, conduct agricultural research, promote or demonize certain foods, monitor school lunches, ban unpasteurized dairy products, regulate food production and labeling, stamp out obesity, or mandate that state governments meet certain food-safety requirements.

The second myth is that government licensing, regulation, and inspections are in the public interest and for the public good. Tell that to Julie Murphy of Portland, Oregon. The seven-year-old girl’s lemonade stand was shut down because she had failed to obtain a $120 temporary restaurant license. Tell it to Diego Bartolome of Sacramento, California. The ten-year-old boy co-founded a salsa company that won him grocery-store accounts, a profile in the newspaper, and an appearance on television. That is, until an inspector from the state Department of Public Health noticed in a TV segment that the boy’s salsa wasn’t labeled properly and had possible temperature-control issues. The food police also forced the boy to get a $350 permit. Tell it to Bobby and Amanda Herring of Houston, Texas. The couple spent a year feeding the homeless with food that had been donated from area businesses and prepared in various kitchens by volunteers — until they were shut down by the city. “Anyone serving food for public consumption, whether for the homeless or for sale, must have a permit,” said Kathy Barton, a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Department. To get the permit, food must be prepared in a certified kitchen by a certified food manager. And then there is the war on raw milk that is taking place in some states.

The third myth is that restaurants are clean and sanitary only because of government inspections. I suppose that is why the Florida Bureau of Sanitation and Safety Inspections “cited a total of 724,864 violations of sanitary standards in public food service and lodging establishments”? Oh, but without periodic government inspections there would be many more violations. That presupposes that absent government inspections every restaurant in the United States would have a disgusting kitchen like the failing restaurants on Restaurant: Impossible. It presupposes that restaurant customers would continue to patronize filthy and unsanitary restaurants. I beg to differ. The main reason that restaurants try to stay clean and sanitary and not make their customers sick is to keep their bills paid, their reputation intact, and their doors open so they don’t become a candidate for Restaurant: Impossible. They not only want their customers to keep coming back; they also want to attract new customers. Proponents of the necessity of government health inspections would have us believe that it is just the risk of a few unannounced health inspections a year that stands between a good meal and getting food poisoning.

The fourth myth is that restaurants would never be inspected if government agencies were not required by statute to perform the inspections. Those who think this way must not be familiar with Underwriters Laboratories, or think it is an agency of the federal government. Underwriters Laboratories tests for safety thousands of products we use in our homes every day. No company is required to submit its products for testing, but look at the back of your computer monitor or the bottom of your toaster and you will see the symbol “UL” with a circle around it. Imagine what would happen to a restaurant if it became known that it refused to allow inspections. If the government doesn’t oversee some occupation, some practice, some product, or some industry it doesn’t follow that no one else will.

The fifth myth is that only government inspectors can do unbiased inspections. If it were left up to each restaurant to hire its own inspector, so it might be said, restaurant owners could just hire their friends or cronies to inspect their restaurants and give them high ratings. Another objection might be that private restaurant inspectors could take bribes from restaurant owners to provide favorable inspection reports or less-than-favorable reports on a restaurant’s competitors. Or inspectors could simply give a restaurant a poor report because they were biased against it. But why is it that government inspectors are seen as so pure and so altruistic that they would never do any of those things? And why is it that people think no government inspector would ever say “good enough for government work” and fail to do a proper inspection of a restaurant?

The sixth myth is that restaurant inspections would never work if just left up to the free market. To the contrary, there is no telling how many restaurant-inspection services would exist on the free market, just like the home-inspection services that are in business today. There are already in existence websites and guides that relate to the quality of the food and service at restaurants. As it is now, there is no incentive for anything other than government health inspections. With a free market, there would undoubtedly also exist organizations to monitor health-inspection services, much like an accrediting agency.

The issue of government inspectors versus market inspectors comes down to the proper role of government — at all levels. Because the federal government is so monstrous, so corrupt, and so tyrannical, discussion of the appropriate nature and function of state and local governments often gets overshadowed by the ever-encroaching federal leviathan. But merely being in a state constitution doesn’t make something right or even a good thing.

As is apparent from the condition of the restaurants on Restaurant: Impossible, it is impossible for government to keep make sure every restaurant is clean and sanitary and to make sure that everyone’s meal at a restaurant is safe to eat. It is also impossible for government to improve on the free market.

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