Thursday, December 21, 2006

Frieden Fries

Meet Dr. Tom Frieden, the man with the power to control the personal lives of New Yorkers. In his short stint as the city's health overlord, Frieden has banned smoking in private dining areas, detained TB patients for refusing treatment, created a monitoring system to track diabetes patients like the endangered Cochabamba Mountain-finch (and, unlike the Mountain-finch, without their knowledge), released dire warnings on the effects of secondhand smoke on pets, enabled health officials to look into the medical records of AIDS patients, banned the use of trans fats, and -- oh yes -- he's just getting warmed up. As profiled in this week's New York Magazine, Frieden is a messianic health missionary who won't quit until mortality, too, is banned. But, unlike Frieden and his co-elitist-in-chief, Mayor Bloomberg, not everyone shares this obsession with living forever ...
This is hard for someone like Frieden to accept. His basic philosophy is that each time a New Yorker dies a premature death from a preventable disease, he has failed. “Whenever he sees anybody smoking in New York City,” his former communications director, Sandra Mullin, told me, “he considers it his fault.” (She also said that several members of the staff were smokers when Frieden took office—he never pressured them to quit, Mullin said, but they all did.)

What Frieden argues is this: With trans fats, it is the restaurants that are giving people no choice. “In a restaurant, it’s not labeled, and there’s no practical way to do it. Nobody goes into a restaurant and says, ‘I’ll have a plate of trans fats.’”

Strictly speaking, yes, nobody does. But they do supersize their orders of French fries. Certainly, from a public-health point of view, we do a pretty lousy job of making our own choices, even when we know which choices are better for us. “Heart disease is the leading cause of premature death in New York City,” says Frieden. “Exhorting people to eat less and exercise more is totally ineffectual.”

No, that's why the jackboot of government becomes necessary. Bravo to the piece's author, Dan Halpbern, for taking the rare step of actually considering the implications these precedents have set:

His track record clearly cuts against individual rights in favor of collective safety. As director of the Bureau of Tuberculosis Control in the early nineties, he successfully sought the detention of TB patients who repeatedly failed to adhere to treatment. And in his current position, he has pushed for a surveillance system to report diabetics’ test results as well as changes to New York law that would waive the requirement to obtain written consent before performing an HIV test. The American Civil Liberties Union has also criticized the health commissioner for his proposals to open HIV-positive patients’ medical files to health officials so that their progress may be monitored.

“It’s awfully Orwellian that the health department could get your labs, call you up, call your doctor up. I’m not sure that’s the kind of health system I want,” says Charles King, the president and CEO of Housing Works, the nonprofit organization that provides housing and services to homeless persons living with HIV/aids. King told me he found Frieden to be intractable: “He believes in what he’s doing to the point of arrogance, and as a consequence doesn’t really listen to outside voices.”

This is, of course, a very old fight, a battle over the extent to which government should be able to employ paternalistic policies: Is it acceptable to remove trans fats from restaurants? How about locking up TB patients? If these are the precedents, what would stop the city from, say, making it punishable by a prison term to have sex if you are HIV-positive? To put anyone who comes off a flight from Hong Kong in quarantine? To remove a child from a mother who drank too much wine during pregnancy?

Why not? As I wrote recently, acquiescing to this style of lawmaking necessarily invites totalitarianism.

So what shape will the restaurant industry take once trans-fats are banned? Hopefully something like Chicago's, where restaurateurs are defiant in the face of the Windy City's recent ban on foie gras, as the Chicago Tribune reports:
Chicago's foie gras ban took effect on Aug. 22, and several restaurants rebelled that night by serving the forbidden fatty liver on pizza, soul food, sausages and in other dishes.

Some chefs and restaurateurs promised more of the same--culinary civil disobedience to protest the ordinance--while also collectively suing the city to overturn the ordinance ....

The words "foie gras" actually still appear on Bin 36's dinner menu in a $14 appetizer: "Summer fig, apricot and honey terrine, and a foie gras torchon, on us." The dish includes a sizable, squat cylinder of dense, spreadable foie gras alongside the gelled fruit combination. The restaurant seems to be testing a possible legal loophole that has been much debated: If you can't sell foie gras, can you give it away?
And civil disobedience is breeding creativity:
Foie gras appeared on pizza on Archer Avenue Tuesday, complemented cornbread and catfish at a South Side soul food place, and was stacked on sausages like pats of butter at a gourmet hot dog joint on the North Side.

Chicago's immediate reaction to a city ordinance banning foie gras--the French dish made from the livers of force-fed ducks and geese--was to embrace the gray goo like never before, in flights of culinary imagination.

Rhetoric and pate abounded on the first day of the City Council's ban, as restaurateurs and gourmands openly flouted the prohibition--cultured, giddy, goose-liver-fueled acts of defiance.
Like teenagers told not drink booze, the ban is having a perverse effect:
At the same time, many diners tried the dish for the first time, drawn to the outlaw pate out of curiosity or desire to chomp on the wild side.

Some profusely thanked the restaurateurs who served it. Others laughed as they nibbled away, rolling their eyes at Chicago's avant-garde concern for poultry.

The city Department of Public Health delayed enforcement, and even Mayor Richard Daley raised his hands in bewilderment.

"I think it's the silliest law that they've ever passed," he said Tuesday.

Call it the City Council's foie gras faux pas.
And what of the actual taste?
As a host of restaurants thumbed their noses at the ban by hastily introducing the dish, diners joined the revolt just by going out to lunch.

At BJ's Market & Bakery, a soul food restaurant on Stony Island Avenue, a sign placed next to the cash register declared foie gras the special of the day, and those who had it proclaimed it delicious.

"I've had regular liver and it doesn't taste like that. I hate to say it, but it tastes like chicken," said manager Steven Jones, 22. "I tried it and I thought it was pretty good."

At Connie's Pizza on Archer Avenue, employees wedged a foie gras pizza on a table display between a pork cutlet sandwich special and a bucket of Miller Lite bottles.

His table shaking with laughter, 54-year-old Jerry Stout of Naperville pronounced that "it tastes like expensive liverwurst. But I better not say that, they might try to ban that too."

In a "Farewell to Foie Gras" spectacular, Harry Caray's Restaurant on Kinzie Street offered a foie gras on sea scallop appetizer and a foie gras and tenderloin entree. Managing partner Grant DePorter said he considered having the farewell a day earlier--but decided Tuesday made "a bigger statement."
'The Joe Moore'
A less publicized but long-standing protest continued at Hot Doug's, where proprietor Doug Sohn offered three variations of a foie gras-laced sausage despite the prohibition. In April he named the foie gras and sauternes duck sausage (with green apple mustard and goat cheese) "The Joe Moore" in honor of the proposal's sponsor.

Sales have been brisk, Sohn said, and he doesn't plan to stop selling it until more clarity about the law arrives.

The line of customers stretching out the front door of his jammed red-and-yellow store widened his smile.
UPDATE: John Stossel asks, "Why do the health police get to take away my choices?"

UPDATE II: Forgot to include this earlier. Frieden is taking credit for New Yorkers' longer lifespans. The man is a GOD.

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