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December 18, 2007

Representin’: Stuffing the piehole

Humans have recently been forced to take trans fats seriously for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that scientists are now certain the Frankenstein-ish veg-oil convert is also a prep course for Heart Attack 101, an unlikely foreshadowing of the heinous prospect of death-by-fat. Here in Possibility City, we’ve endured 10 months of intense debate over whether it’s in the best interest of the citizenry to ban — 

Wait. What? Debate?
Right. There’s been about as much debate over banning trans fats in every PC, Ky. restaurant and food-serving establishment as there is trans fat in a truffle: a little to keep it tasty, but not enough substance to move you.

So why is an ordinance so fraught with negative potential, so underserved by debate, coming up for a vote at Thursday’s council meeting? There’s a good reason, and it has something to do with a breakdown of the system.

The ordinance moved through a committee process, but it was relatively incomplete, and some think the thing is still not ready for a council vote. While I’m all for government intervention in matters of public health and consumer protection — I’d consider the cheapening of food-prep by injecting low-level poison into foodstuffs a matter requiring consumer protection — there are some major problems with this thing.

Paramount is that the ordinance is anti-Weird. The ban would apply to “any food service establishment within Louisville Metro,” which means basically any business that sells food, including restaurants, coffee shops, cafeterias, short order cafes, luncheonettes, grills, tea rooms, sandwich shops, soda fountains, taverns, bars, cocktail lounges, night clubs, roadside stands, industrial feeding establishments, any organization routinely serving food, catering kitchens, commissaries, or “similar places in which food is prepared for sale or service in the premises or elsewhere with or without charge.”

As noted in the ordinance’s preamble, several major companies have voluntarily gone trans fat-free or begun to, including Kraft, Frito-Lay, Smuckers, Tyson, Wendy’s and Louisville-based Yum! Brands. These are companies with the financial muscle to upend their food-preservation and preparation techniques for the sake of good PR (oh, and health).

What about the local food joints? The bakeries? Your breakfast scone at the snob-grade coffee shop? As written, the ordinance makes no considerations for these places, which are left at a distinct economic disadvantage trying to comply with an expensive new mandate in the face of well-funded competition already on its way to such compliance. Many in Louisville pride themselves on the city’s dining scene, which has gained national attention in the recent past. Can we not recognize this powerful constituency with a more nuanced ordinance that sympathizes with small business rather than putting another nail in its coffin?

Well, we probably will, which is the point of this year-end ramble. The councilman behind the ordinance, Dan Johnson, D-21, wants it to move, as do some others. And it appears their impatience has helped short-circuit the necessary process of public discourse.

For a history lesson, look no further than the so-called dangerous dog ordinance. This time last year, majority Democrats concocted a shrewd 11th-hour political strategy and caused a long and savage floor debate, from which passed a 90-plus-page law that has inspired two lawsuits and taken a year to begin to repair.

Thursday’s meeting is likely, at least in some respects, to finally put down the dog ordinance, winner of the 2006 Representin’ Presents The Bitch-of-the-Year™ award. Cary Stemle has a fuller story about that matter on page 9 of this issue, so I’ll MoveOn.org.

Also on Thursday’s agenda is the panhandling ordinance, an apparently well-intentioned attempt to protect tourists and downtowners from rabid bums. It received some debate, and made it through the public safety committee in exactly the same form it entered, though with a recommendation to vote against it.

It was yet another year-end attempt at swiftness from a body that suddenly becomes concerned with expediency every December, even when the agenda is fat with controversial, underserved items. 
Just vote now and deal with the mess later, right? Hopefully the lessons of last December will hold.