salt

The scarlet NaCl

April 21st, 2010  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

I suspect that most federal appointees and policymakers would claim to have a dim view of “legislating morality,” if asked point-blank about the matter. But this is clearly not the case: some spheres of morality are more than ripe for regulation, legislation, and public shamings for those who offend the sensibilities of our betters.

Consider salt, which has had a rough few months: first, it was the target of a bill in the New York State Assembly intending to outlaw its use by restaurants. Now the FDA has decided that we aren’t capable of reading nutrition-information labels and that they must change the public’s taste for salty foods by ratcheting down permissible salt levels in commercially-prepared food over time:

“This is a 10-year program,” one source said. “This is not rolling off a log. We’re talking about a comprehensive phase-down of a widely used ingredient. We’re talking about embedded tastes in a whole generation of people.”

(The linked article is also notable for mentioning that the “director for technical and regulatory affairs at the Salt Institute” is a man named Morton Satin, which is one of the best vocational aptonyms of all time. When it rains, it pours, I guess.)

The difference between this sort of decision — to change the tastes of a generation by bringing several industries under the gradually-tightening yoke of regulation — and most government actions conventionally considered to be “legislating morality” is one of essence, not of degree. In the latter case, by outlawing (for example) dogfighting or prostitution, government actions merely codify overwhelming public sentiment. In the case of salt (or related issues, like CAFE standards for cars or what sorts of light bulbs one should use), policymakers perceive their actions as necessary to override overwhelming public sentiment.

Salt

March 9th, 2010  |  Tags: ,  |  1 Comment

I had been interested in making Canadian bacon from a recipe in the brine chapter of Michael Ruhlman’s excellent Ratio, but I’d not been able to source the necessary sodium nitrite locally and was waiting to order it. I guess it’s a good thing I waited, because sodium nitrite is apparently staggeringly toxic: less than a teaspoon is enough to kill an adult, and even the small amounts that make it in to food are implicated in all sorts of other ugliness. It seems like a pretty dumb thing to keep in a house with little kids and a dog whose affinity for the inedible borders on caprine.

I’m far from a food-snob crusader, but I don’t really eat a lot of processed meat (by choice), and reading about one of the main preservatives in processed meats didn’t do much to make me feel bad about that.

You might assume that the brief Wikipedia article on sodium nitrite would be the most horrifying salt-related thing one could read today, but then you would be wrong. Reason editor Katherine Mangu-Ward points out that a bill currently before the New York state assembly would prohibit the use of good old NaCL (and possibly also baking soda — it’s not particularly specific) in food prepared by restaurants. The bill, summarized as “An act to amend the general business law, in relation to prohibiting the use of salt in the preparation of food by restaurants,” begins as follows (typewriter shouting in original):

NO OWNER OR OPERATOR OF A RESTAURANT IN THIS STATE SHALL USE SALT IN ANY FORM IN THE PREPARATION OF ANY FOOD FOR CONSUMPTION BY CUSTOMERS OF SUCH RESTAURANT, INCLUDING FOOD PREPARED TO BE CONSUMED ON THE PREMISES OF SUCH RESTAURANT OR OFF OF SUCH PREMISES.

It goes on to propose a $1000 fine for each violation, noting that “EACH USE OF SALT … SHALL CONSTITUTE A SEPARATE VIOLATION”1 and that injunctions to prevent further violations would not “REQUIR[E] PROOF THAT ANY PERSON HAS, IN FACT, BEEN INJURED OR DAMAGED” by the addition of salt to their food. (Fictional New York resident Gene Hofstadt clearly disapproves of such a display of state-sanctioned violence to palates.)

Apparently, one can become a state lawmaker in New York without ever having prepared food. I will avoid the facile cliché of wondering aloud whether there are more pressing matters facing the New York State Assembly, or of whether legislators are capable of identifying limits to the scope of law. I do wonder, though, what foods Assemblypersons Ortiz and Perry eat on their own time, and whether or not either owns a substantial interest in Mrs. Dash.

1 This language is a fine example of imprecise legislative nonsense. Surely it means “each act of applying salt…shall constitute a separate violation,” but I can’t help picturing the food crimes unit of the NYPD busting chefs once for separate uses of salt, e.g., to kosher meats, to increase the boiling point of water, and to take the edge off of spicy heat.