Government Under Review


Daniel E. Ho and Becky Elias examined whether peer review for public servants can make the law more consistent in Boston Review:

Like many good arguments, this one started over a stiff drink. An Earl Grey MarTEAni, to be precise.

In January 2010, Nathalie Louissaint, a New York City health inspector, visited Pegu Club, an upscale cocktail bar. She watched as the bartender mixed the signature tea-infused drink. Borrowing a technique from the nineteenth century, the bartender added raw egg whites, which give the drink a silky body and an alluring layer of foam. Louissaint decided that the raw egg warning on the menu was insufficient and cited the bar for a health code violation.

The citation outraged many. Paul Clarke, a Seattle-based food writer, was perplexed by the department’s rigid position on raw eggs, writing on the website Serious Eats, “Does this mean the health department will begin targeting restaurants that serve raw eggs in a Caesar salad?” Others decried the health department’s seeming mandate to use pasteurized eggs, but those, said Pegu Club owner Audrey Sanders, “impart this really funky wet-diaper nose.” One bartender, who insisted on anonymity for fear of reprisal, told the New York Times, “If they make it illegal to serve egg-white drinks, that would be Hurricane Katrina for us.” In response to the uproar, the health department overruled the inspector.

This confusion is no outlier. Nationwide, implementation of health codes varies dramatically across inspectors and health departments. In Seattle, two inspectors observed Caesar salad dressing prepared with raw (unpasteurized) eggs in the same restaurant, but disagreed about whether to cite a violation. Contrary to New York City health department guidelines, New York State’s website doesn’t mention menu warnings, instead admonishing, “Consider using commercially pasteurized eggs in recipes that use eggs or consider removing the item from your menu.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) document that 80 percent of restaurants nonetheless use unpasteurized eggs.

When it comes down to it, the marTEAni fight is not so much about eggs as it is an endemic challenge across government. From airport security checkpoints and routine traffic stops to home construction permits, citizens and government interact frequently through individual officials. At times, the decisions of these frontline government officials can seem disturbingly arbitrary.

More here.