Law-abiding citizens | Bleader

Law-abiding citizens

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Reports from the Tribune and Chicago Public Radio this week pointed out that this is the one-year anniversary of Chicago's ban on selling foie gras. Both made it clear that restaurants are still serving the food, made from the livers of force-fed ducks and geese, but they're getting around the ordinance by giving it away for "free"--as part of a high-priced salad, for example. They quoted health department spokesman Tim Hadac saying that enforcing the ban was among the department's lowest priorities, and that its staff would really prefer not to bother with it at all.

Plenty of people have made compelling arguments about how the time spent debating this ordinance--and then criticizing and defending it in the 12 months since--should have been spent on something else. As reprehensible as many people find the production of foie gras, most also agree that other problems are more widespread and pressing--such as the fact that Chicago has long had one of the nation's highest rates of serious asthma, a potentially deadly but usually treatable disease, yet the health department has never made confronting it a top priority. 

Here's the sticking point, though: like it or not, the ban on foie gras happens to be a law, passed by the City Council like every other local law, from traffic regulations to building codes to the organization of the city government itself. The Daley administration has decided to discount it, much as it's gone on record discounting--and outright ignoring--other laws and court orders it doesn't like, such as the Shakman decree banning political hiring and firing, federal aviation rules on closing airports, and the process for investigating police abuse (which was rarely taken seriously before being changed recently).

"We do enforce the law, but we don't do it proactively," Hadac told me yesterday. He said inspectors follow up on reports of restaurants selling foie gras, but not with the same urgency they show in responding to human health concerns. 

It was a decision of all of the department's "health professionals" to do the minimum foie gras enforcement necessary, according to Hadac. "Clearly, we know what our mission is," he said, and that's confronting human health problems. In contrast, the foie gras ban "was just something that all of us here collectively, when it came our way, said, 'Here's another unfunded mandate.'"

But the  law itself doesn't say the health department has to be in charge of enforcement: "All food dispensing establishments, as defined in Section 4-8-010 of the Municipal Code, shall prohibit the sale of foie gras," the ordinance reads. "Any business that violates any provision of this chapter shall be fined not less than $250 and no more than $500 for each offense, and a separate and distinct offense shall be deemed to have been committed for each and every day on which any business shall be guilty of such violation."

Hadac and a law department spokeswoman both told me that because the city code assigns the health department the responsibility for health-related restaurant inspections, enforcing the foie gras ban also became its job, essentially by default.

But the city code doesn't actually require this. Section 7-42 of the municipal code--the place where restaurant inspections are authorized--says, "The department of health shall inspect all food establishments at least once every six months and as often as necessary to determine that the requirements of this Municipal Code are being complied with."

Obviously, the health department isn't responsible for enforcing every part of the city code--Streets and San deals with problems with garbage collection, the buildings department with structural code violations, and so forth--so arguably this language is simply suggesting that it's the job of the health department to deal with matters relating to . . . health.

In fact, this is how the city code spells it out just a few lines later: "It shall be the duty of every [food establishment] owner to permit a representative of the department of health, after proper identification, to enter at any reasonable time and make inspections of the facilities, equipment and vehicles for determining compliance with the requirements of this Municipal Code relating to health and sanitation."

Of course, if the Daley administration doesn't want to follow the law, it won't matter whether the health department, animal care and control, or Cardinal George is responsible for enforcing it. And we know where the mayor stands. As he told reporters yesterday: "Some restaurants are selling it by disguising it under [other] names on the menu."

That would be the mayor, our city's chief executive, stating that he knows some restaurants are breaking the law. And he's fine with it.

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