TCS Daily

Grandma Shrugged

By Max Borders - August 15, 2006 12:00 AM

Today, in what was once the freest nation on earth, we are regulated from stem to stern. I'm not just talking about high market-cap corporations coughing up millions just to comply with the latest Byzantine addition to the Federal Register. I'm talking about barbeque sauce. Yes, barbeque sauce.

Not long ago my wife and I started trying to think of ways to earn a little extra money. She currently works as a nanny, but will soon lose that income when our new baby arrives -- and babies can be pricey. The Washington, DC area where we live isn't cheap, either. Since we're both from North Carolina, we started thinking about what people back home would've done to get by -- people like our parents and grandparents. We thought of all the folks we once knew who were enterprising, albeit in an old-timey sort of way: the old lady who'd take in ironing; my grandfather who mowed lawns up until he died; people who would can tomatoes, creamed corn, and pickles.

Being from NC, I happen to like barbeque sauce. And due to these same humble origins, I happen also to make it pretty well (both the tomato-based and the vinegar-based varieties). So my wife and I starting thinking: maybe we could sell it at the farmer's market up the street. At this particular market, people sell all sorts of things, but mostly fresh produce from farms in the extended area. Other folks there have also started putting out jams, jellies, salsas, homemade breads, and so on. Good stuff, too.

So we looked into the possibility of actually selling our sauce. We got so excited, in fact, that we got busy cooking, scaling up my recipe for larger batches, and canning. I even made a "Curly Q" label on my computer with the image of a pig with a curly tail. (Carolina BBQ is mostly pork, but my sauce is good on chicken, beef, even sushi). Finally, after some phone tag, we got in contact with a representative from the Northern Virginia County where I live, and she proceeded to explain what would be involved in selling our sauce at the farmer's market.

The following conversation is accurate to the best of my memory.

"First, you'll need to contact the County Board of Health to come out and inspect the kitchen where you prepare the sauce," she said.

"But it's just our apartment. We're just talking about canning food in mason jars -- you know, like old ladies do."

"Well, they'll have to inspect where the food is prepared."

Now, I know deep down that no degree of cleaning, reorganizing or whatever will get my apartment (or anyone else's for that matter) up to code. But heck, maybe I could suffer the indignity and give it a try. Maybe with a little research and some lead time... I decided to hear her out.

"Then, we're going to have to see a business license."

"Business license?"


"But this is just my wife and me making the sauce. If we sell a hundred cans, we might make all of $200.00"

"Well, that's not all."


"No, the county needs proof of business insurance."

I looked at the phone as if it were some alien thing transmitting gibberish. For a moment, I considered taking the woman to task. I thought of launching into some diatribe about what farmer's markets are supposed to be about, what community is, and about a bygone era in this country where "buy at your own risk" actually meant something. But she was just a bureaucrat. A cog. She was merely enforcing the requirements of a wiser, more powerful, and surely more benevolent bureaucrat.

I thanked her for her time and hung up.

So this is what has come of the home canning industry? Forget Atlas. Has grandma shrugged? Or has she gone underground to run persimmon preserves on the black market? I realize I may be hyperbolizing. But I found it rather sad that there might be greater barriers to entry for a poor person to sell barbeque sauce than to pick up a welfare check.

One Sunday, about a week later, my wife and I ambled up to the farmer's market. We noticed one lady selling greenhouse tomatoes. But she was also selling homemade salsa. We bought a couple of the tomatoes and asked the seller if she had had to jump through any bureaucratic hurdles to sell the salsa. She replied "no" and clammed up a little. She claimed that she'd only recently started putting it out. If she knew about the county regulations, she feigned ignorance.

I looked around and notice a couple more tables where people had put out such fare. While there were no "buy at your own risk" signs, I'm sure the health inspectors hadn't been out to these people's homes. I had my doubts about the licenses and insurance, too. And I admit it: I was angry. But I didn't want to let my indignation spoil everyone else's beneath-the-radar commerce, even though my wares were collecting dust at home.

My wife and I aren't in the poorhouse. We're also pretty resourceful. Maybe we'll find another way. Why, just last night we dined on a meal-to-go prepared by an, eh hem, independent businesswoman in the neighborhood where my wife works as a nanny. Maybe we could do something like that, too. Of course, it'd have to be a strictly word-of-mouth affair. Otherwise, hush hush. People would have to buy at their own risk. But who knows, maybe the underground ain't so bad?

(I may even have a line on some barbeque sauce if you're interested.)

Max Borders is managing editor of



Waytogo, Max
Excellent writing, Max, thanks. Let me encourage you in your scofflawry. Study the regs, expecially the paragraph in the back that says that if you don't like them, you can appeal. As a retired health department gestapo agent, I'm an expert on busting kids' lemonade stands. These bureaucrats need to be exposed. Talk to your elected representative and the local paper. Be prepared for hearings or even court action, represent yourself, appeal to like-minded freedom lovers for support.

The county health inspection is a tax, (im)pure and simple, though the forms you have to fill out may not be so simple. The business license is also a tax. What both tell you is that you can't really afford to be in a really small business, because the non-income taxes will "eat you alive".

However, producing and selling a food product without business liability insurance is an extremely high risk venture; and, arguably, a form of insanity. While "common sense" (which, if it ever was, is no longer common) might eventually overtake county regulation, there will still be lawyers to take liability cases. Even if you win, you lose, because your lawyer will definitely send a bill. Heaven forbid, your recipe might even contain something to which someone is allergic.

Why doesn't your wife just do something low risk, like open a day care center in you apartment. (Just kidding!)

the purpose of govt regulation
is mostly to eliminate competition for existing businesses

How much money is our economy missing out on with this garbage?
Right after I graduated college, I went in to business with my Dad. He happens to be an M.D. and I happened to be a B.B.A. He had a product he wanted to develop and market, and I had the know-how to get us going. The product was selling like hotcakes in other, less effective forms, and would surely have sold better in ours. Except...

The FDA loomed over our potential business venture like the Empire State Building looms over anthills. In order for my Dad and I to produce this product, we would have had to hire and pay for a full-time FDA inspector. We would have had to build all sorts of specialized facilities. We would have had to go through at-least three years and millions of dollars worth of testing, despite the fact that repeated studies had already proven that the exact same compound in our product was orders of magnitude safer than anything else on the market and almost twice as effective.

However, because we couldn't be sure that this product would make the required millions of dollars, we had to stop before we started.

How many businesses suffer the same fate as ours? How many people never even get started selling their products because the government gets in the way? How many people die each year because new and improved products aren't available because of useless government rules?

Furthermore, where have all of these little regulations done us any good? I realize that being paid to nitpick does keep otherwise useless burecrats away from lives of drugs and prostitution, but is it actually doing more good than bad?

Tell me liberals. I want to hear one place where agencies like the FDA or the EPA are actually doing good by regulating small-businesses out of existence.

I think you answered my question before I even asked it...
I asked in my "How much money is our..." post where any of these nitpicking regulations are doing any good. You appear to have found the answer: Internal protectionism for the buddies of the local/county/state/national representative.

The real question now is: Is there any way to balance consumer protection from fraud and abuse with free-enterprise? Especially when we face an increasingly complex world where performing due dilligence on every product we buy might be impossible, or impractical...

due diligence and private testing
You don't have to conduct due diligence on every product.
All you need is for someone you trust to do that due dilligence for you.

For example, UL (United Laboratories) is a completely private outfit. I don't have to take apart a lamp or toaster to be sure that it meets certain safety standards. UL has done that for me, and allows the company put the UL label on the product when it meets those standards.

Companies have to pay money to UL to get their products inspected. They are willing to pay that money, because they know that people like me look for the UL label.

UL must maintain their standards, because if people like me loose faith in UL, companies will no longer pay UL for the priviledge of applying the label to their products.

Consumer Reports is another private outfit that rates consumer products.

If a UL or Consumer Reports tester gets bribed, and the world finds out, UL and CR take big hits in their credibility, they run the risk of going out of business. On the other hand, what happens when a govt regulator gets bribed?

selling without testing
People should be allowed to sell products without FDA approval. The only requirement is that they can't advertise that they have FDA approval. That's false advertisement, and would be illegal even in a completely laissez faire environment.

If there were multiple testing agencies, competing for business, they would have incentive to look for the cheapest tests that would still ensure basic levels of safety and effectiveness.

What the libs will say:
1) The people we trust to verify merchantability of things have lied before... Qui custodiet ipsos custodes? (KPMG, Arthur Anderson, etc.) They had a lot of money on the line, so that dosen't do it, we need government!

2) How many people will die before we find out that a testing agency is farting around with their data? Therefore, we need a government testing agenvy as a backstop before people start dying.

I tend to think that #1 occured largely because of government interventions at so many levels made it easier to commit fraud and get away with it, and #2 is made only more difficult to discover by layers of government interference. What do you suggest?

Better Yet- Prominent Disclaimer
They can advertise or market, so long as it states the one of following clearly, plainly and conspicously:

This product has not been evaluated by the FDA, it may be dangerous or ineffective.

This product is currently undergoing testing by the the FDA, it may be dangerous or ineffective.

(Other disclaimer as necessary).

But then again, we're so used to having big daddy tell us its ok.

The people we trust to verify merchantability of things have lied before... Qui custodiet ipsos custodes? (KPMG, Arthur Anderson, etc.) They had a lot of money on the line, so that dosen't do it, we need government!

But don't they tell us that the government lied about Iraq?

UFO's, the World Trade Center being a controlled demolition? The secret symbology of the currency?

The real question is why they trust a government that tells us we have a "voluntary" tax system.

I've worked for both KPMG and the government. Plenty of liars in both places.

perfection as a goal

1) The govt agencies that were in charge of making sure that these agencies did not lie, Failed.

2) All you have to do is point out the many instances in which govt agencies have screwed up or been corrupted.

There is a tendency amongst many to assume that if the private sector is bad, the govt sector is therefore perfect and uncorruptable.

Fix the FDA
Reform the role of the FDA (and other similar agencies) as follows:
1) The FDA will no longer be allowed to prohibit the marketing of products or require any level of testing.
2) Instead, the FDA will evaluate products and provide information, a Rating and comments. A scale of 0-100 could be used…0 = “drop dead poisonous” while 100 would be a product with a long history of use and no known problems.

More favorable FDA ratings can be had based on evidence of effectiveness and market tenure. But new products cannot be banned because subjective artificial standards are not met…they can only be rated poorly.

All products can be harmful, depending on usage and the user. The artificial blessings vs. prohibitions offered by the FDA add a lot of cost without compensentory benefit. The FDA should present the facts, their rating and their comments…and let the consumer decide.

Don't worry abou tcorruption, worry about incompetence
My last interaction with an FDA agent was when one came to make sure we had responded to a recall on our Cobalt60 therapy machine. (Yea, explain to me why with agencies up the wazoo already overloading us, the Food and Drug Administration has to get in the act.)

Anyway, we responedd that the recall was only for the motorized table not the whole machine, and that we didn't have the table.

"How do you treat patients?" she asked.

"We only use it for research and emergency Rx, so patients are treated in a wheelchair or on a gurney," I replied.

"What's a gurney?" she asked.

She wsa only one example. Too many of the regulatory people I dealt with were scientifically illiterate bureaucrats, concerned with the paperwork only and void of anything approaching common sense.

My main reason for leaving Radiation Therapy Research after 30 years was I was burned out from dealing with a horde of petty satraps.

When in the farmers market...
Do as the grandmas do. Ignore the ridiculous laws. Let me know if the bureaucrats come over and kick down your BBQ stand.

Frankly, I don't know the business laws in my state and I don't care. I started my own business with no license, no insurance, no nothing but what's in between my own two ears. I pay income taxes on everything I make and until the government comes knocking at my door, I'm going to continue to run my business how I see fit. That's the freedom I grew up learning about in school and that's the freedom I practice and will teach to my son.

One way to begin countering tax based corruption is through the Fair Tax Plan. If you haven't read the bill, HR25/S25, buy and read the book. You'll recognize it by the NO IRS symbol on the cover.

trail lawyers
Max can thank the trial lawyers for this silliness. The way you cover you butt is with pointless signs and tweedledum regulations. If you can read the fine print on the back of the rat poison label, you know not to drink it. Or put it into your baby's formula bottle. It is not that trial lawyers want to create a risk-free society, though it seems that way. Rather they want to capitalize on our inability to eliminate risk and randomness. One class action in which I was inadvertantly a member of the class netted me a phone card worth ten minutes at 5 cents a minute. 50 cents! And to get this I only needed to send in a signed agreement so minus my 39 cent stamp, I net 11 cents. The lawyers who did this should go to jail not to the bank.

The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act
Your Grandma's experience shouldn't be that surprising, Max. I thought everyone knew what was involved in the sale of prepared foods.

Don't you recall when all of Amos's friends told him he made the best damn choc chip cookies in the country? He had to file for a permit and get his kitchen inspected too. But he followed through and did it.

And sold so many cookies that he went national. The rest is history, and he might now be selling a billion cookies a year.

The better product will always succeed-- even in a market where there are probably 75 barbecue sauces both national and local on the shelves of a well stocked NC grocery.

The reason we don't just let everyone sell prepared foods without permits is the reason the FDA was founded-- we've found that too many people just serve up cheap, unsanitary crap that makes you sick when the market is totally unregulated.

The reason we let farmers sell unprepared foods without all the bureaucratic process is that it's harder to screw up a pumpkin.

A "liberal" replies
Well, at least compared to you I'm liberal. :)

This is actually a very valid criticism of the current regulatory environment. All the guidelines do need a thorough overhaul. There have to be thousands of potentially viable small businesses that have been snuffed out due to this short-sighted, stupid, rule-bound style of bureaucratic heavy handedness.

The question one has to ask is, is there some compensatory reason why some sort of regulatory mechanism should be retained? And I think the answer you have to give is yes. We do have to have effective checks against contaminated meats, toxic residues in prepared foods and hazardous medicines and cosmetics.

But to me it looks as though you have a manichean view of things: either we must accept the current system flaws and all, or we must do away with it entirely and live without any controls. And here, I think the more liberal, nuanced view wins the critical edge.

Why don't we insist that our civil service be tasked with revising all the rules in favor of greater efficiency and fewer delays and costs to the little guy? Certainly someone who is both bright and committed to the task can accomplish something like this.

Is this approach totally beyond our powers to attain? We can go to the outer planets for a photo shoot but we can't permit a small business to get safely up and running inside a decade?

I chalk this up to the failure of the American voter to demand better results from their increasingly incompetent elected officials. I don't actually blame these officials first and foremost. I think they're just doing the minimum their bosses (We the People) require of them.

Flouting it all
You're taking a big chance when you fly under their radar. They may not catch you. But if you're successful, your profile becomes higher and higher. And when they do catch you, you get nibbled to death by ferrets.

They usually don't nail granny and her old time cookie mix unless (1) there is a consumer complaint, to which they have to respond, or (2) her business is making too much money. Declare the profits and you get into trouble. Fail to declare the profits and... well....

We do have to have checks against contaminated beef, etc.

However, this does not prove that only govt can conduct these checks. Or even that govt control is the best way to conduct these checks.

As I have shown above, govt agencies are the worst way to go about ensuring consumer safety.

The doctrinaire approach
Here's your brilliant idea, Mark: "If there were multiple testing agencies, competing for business, they would have incentive to look for the cheapest tests that would still ensure basic levels of safety and effectiveness."

If a private agency were to get into the meat processing industry as a quality inspector, they would be bought by the beef, swine and poultry interests. Things would be the same as they are at present, where the USDA is staffed by people from the meat industry. The only thing that would change is that meat prices would rise, to adjust for the cost of having an extra, profit oriented service piled on top of the other costs.

Then we would be pressuring government to regulate the corrupt meat inspection industry. You know that.

In theory, in some perfect world without profit-oriented players, the job could be done by anyone, either public or private. But it would have to be done from the POV of an honest inspection protocol. And that won't be happening in this real world we've got.

The reality approach
The reason companies pay good money to buy the rights to use UL's seal of approval, is that consumers trust UL.

The minute UL is caught faking results, the consumers stop trusting UL, and the UL label becomes worthless. Why would any company pay good money for something the consumers don't value?

In the private sector, being caught cheating is corrected by the market place. In the public sector, being caught cheating just causes taxes to go up.

The private sector can and does do a better job of inspection, at a low cost. This has been proven time and time again.

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