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Bureaucracy vs. Ice Cream

Nice Cream, one of my favorite local food makers, runs into a licensing issue with the state even after having operated without problems for a couple years in the city. Looks like it’s time for another tweak to the food laws.

Kris Swanberg Nice Cream

 

So yesterday the Tribune had a nice interview with the woman who runs one of my favorite places to shop in Chicago, the Green Grocer on Grand. It sources lots of its food from local and regional farmers, including a friend of mine. How’d it come to be?

“We went to the gas station on the corner and got some crappy pint of something,” Green recalls. “And I started complaining to Gary (Stephens), ‘We need someplace in the neighborhood where you can get good fresh produce, good ice cream, good eggs, good milk. We just need a little market.’

Good ice cream! One of the things I buy there is Nice Cream, made by—and this is resonant—laid-off public schools teacher Kris Swanberg. I recommend the Earl Grey. But now, according to the Trib’s Monica Eng, you can’t get it, because of a licensing problem—which is odd, because she’s been selling it since at least 2009. Some of the proposed solutions Swanberg says she’s been given are impossibly frustrating:

Swanberg could continue to work without a license, Wilding said, if she used a premade ice cream mix that he said was usually formulated with stabilizers and other additives — the kind of thing typically used at Dairy Queens, he noted.

I actually lived through something like this once. For the first two years of college, I went to school on a farm (long story), and at one point the state attempted to enforce certain rules regarding dairy following an outbreak of what appeared, at first glance, to be food poisoning. Some of the changes they insisted upon were reasonable; others were not merely expensive but also counterproductive, as my classmate who grew up on a small Wisconsin farm knew, for very small operations—like laying a concrete floor outside the barn. One of the problems was unpasteurized milk, the sale of which is an ongoing issue throughout the country. It turned out that the illness came into the farm via a professor’s toddler, but once the wheels were in motion it got complicated quickly.

Point being: My first instinct is not to be angry at the bureaucrats—clearly the first response in comments to Eng’s story—although the fact that the licensing issue is only being applied now is perplexing. We live in a country dominated by big agriculture and the mass production of food; the laws are written for that, and the regulations that Swanberg operates under are identical to massive producers; and the inspectors have to operate under the rules we give them. And those rules tend to err on the side of caution.

As @sadlypanda pointed out on Twitter, something like this recently came up with vendors of prepared food at farmers’ markets, and the response was to create legislation loosening regulations for small vendors. (Eng notes it doesn’t apply to ice cream; IANAL, but from a quick reading of SB 840, the The Illinois Local Food Entrepreneur & Cottage Food Operation Act, the problem would seem to be that ice cream is a “potentially hazardous food” under FDA regulations because it requires temperature control.) And there are special, though fairly restrictive, regulations for the sale of raw milk in Illinois.

It’s frustrating; I’d hate to see Nice Cream or Black Dog go under because they’re both delicious. I’m hoping that if it’s not a mistake, a legislative fix can be enacted, though it took SB840 about five months to go from introduction to the governor’s desk. Barring that… maybe Logan Square Kitchen can Kickstart a pasteurizing machine?

Update: @sadlypanda also notes that SB 1852 covers ice cream at farmers’ markets.

 

Photograph: Chicago Tribune

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