The Laughs On U.S.
The Big Cheese Controls the Pie

by Sheldon Richman

Time was, when you thought of pizza, you thought basically of one thing: a flat round baked crust smeared with tomato sauce, topped with mozzarella cheese. Those who really lived on the edge would chance anchovies, if they didn’t mind dining alone. (In Hanover, New Hampshire, there’s a pizza joint called Everything But Anchovies. I keep waiting for the government to crack down on the place, since you actually can get anchovies there, undoubtedly putting the restaurant in violation of some truth-in-advertising regulation.)

So pizza was one of the simple things in life. But capitalism has to give us more choices than we can handle. Indeed, thinking up varieties of pizza is something of a growth industry. Restaurant chains such as California Pizza Kitchen thrive on bewildering consumers with an endless array of pizzas like rosemary chicken potato and Peking duck.

Thank goodness for the Food and Safety Inspection Service of the Agriculture Department, which is always on the lookout for snares in the marketplace. An FSIS spokeswoman said that new frozen-pizza standards may be needed precisely because the marketplace keeps coming up with new products, such as low-fat pizza. Low fat? I mean, what’s the point? At any rate, the cloistered regulatory monks who divine the objective definitions of "white pizza" and "pepperoni" can be counted on to inscribe a brand-new lexicon of pizza and hand it down to the rest of us.

But an interesting thing happened on the way to the new rulemaking: hardly anyone showed up. The spokeswoman said that when the agency asked for public comment on what form the new rules should take, hardly anyone responded! To paraphrase her explanation, the agency has its hands in so many things, no one noticed that it was asking for comment on how to regulate frozen pizza. It’s hard to keep track of what the Big Cheese is up to, I guess.

Don’t get me wrong. The Inspection Service’s work to date has been impressive. For example, the official definition of "sausage pizza" is a "bread-based meat food product with tomato sauce, cheese and meat topping containing—here is where the government’s mystical powers kick in—not less than 12 percent cooked sausage or 10 percent dry sausage (pepperoni)." Some people may wonder why sausage and pepperoni have different standards. All I can say is that for those who already understand, no explanation is necessary, while for those who don’t, no explanation is possible.

Some in the Inspection Service wonder how you can have a low-fat pepperoni pizza if a minimum amount of meat is required, and that’s why the regulatory monks are going back to their important work.

Most of us have long understood that the government is the author of all good things. But how many of us really grasped that our very method of communication flows from its good offices?

Take the phrase "mixed nuts." How many of you know that the government has decreed what that phrase means? It’s a darn good thing too, or we wouldn’t know what we were talking about. According to the Federal Register: "Mixed nuts is the food consisting of a mixture of four or more of the optional shelled tree nut ingredients, with or without one or more of the optional shelled peanut ingredients, of the kinds prescribed by paragraph (b) of this section."

Sounds reasonable. And to show how accommodating the government is, the four-nut rule is not absolute: "When 2 ounces or less of the food is packed in transparent containers, three or more of the optional tree nut ingredients shall be present." Now observe the regulators’ fine touch: "Each such kind of nut ingredient when used shall be present in a quantity not less than 2 percent and not more than 80 percent by weight of the finished food." Who can doubt that those percentages are exactly right? For the record, the nuts can include almonds, black walnuts, Brazil nuts, cashews, English walnuts, filberts, pecans, other suitable tree nuts, and peanut varieties such as Spanish, Valencia, Virginia, "or any combination of two or more such varieties." Nut lovers probably never knew they were in such good hands. Maybe a few self-styled free spirits even think that such regulation is a little absurd. But think about it, without those rules, could we really be sure that mixed nuts wouldn’t include the kind they sell in hardware stores?

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