Lou Di Palo’s personal Culatello di Zibello currently hangs in a cellar just outside Parma, Italy. The luxurious cured ham — made by salumi master Massimo Spigaroli — is among the most prized ingredients in all of Italy, and even though Di Palo made his name selling prized Italian ingredients at his shop, Di Palo’s Fine Foods in Little Italy, that ham is as close as it will ever get to the Grand Street storefront.
That’s because most culatello cannot be sold in the United States. Just one producer, a cold-cut brand called Negroni, could afford to spend 15 years acquiring FDA approval. When it hit U.S. shelves in 2017, Di Palo’s — a fifth-generation Italian food emporium that Daniel Boulud calls “one of the Seven Wonders of New York” — was among the first stores to carry it. Di Palo says he’s “thrilled” to carry any culatello, but he also doesn’t downplay the effects of federal meddling (salumi lovers, avert your eyes): “The rind is removed, and it gets cleaned and packaged” before it’s sold.
Of course, food lovers in America have gotten used to navigating a world of complicated, often arbitrary-seeming bans and regulations that overwhelmingly target otherwise-safe specialty products. Just last week, New York became the first major city to stop cafés and bars from serving customers CBD, and City Council member Carlina Rivera announced a bill that would outlaw foie gras citywide.
Once upon a time, believe it or not, the government hardly meddled with Americans food. In 1906, the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act — the FDA’s precursors — were passed to eradicate a litany of horrific practices and health hazards (tubercular beef, coffee made with tree bark, milk rendered “creamy” with the addition of pureed calves’ brains, and so on). But newer rules, targeting individual ingredients — even if they are used in good faith, with the best intentions — are often confusing for business owners, consumers, and sometimes even the agencies that enforce the actual bans. After officials bagged up all her CBD, Fat Cat Kitchen co-owner C.J. Holm told Eater that she called the city’s health department and “they couldn’t even intelligently explain to me exactly what the problem was.”
The reason behind the ban is that CBD hasn’t been approved as a food additive by the FDA, which seems reasonable, but the the city’s execution in enforcing the new rules struck many as off-putting and slapdash. Only five businesses — a fraction of the total number putting CBD into food products — were issued orders to stop. Flower Power Coffee Co. owner Dorothy Stepnowska told CBS New York the edict cost her $6,000 overnight. Meanwhile, Adriaen Block, a CBD cocktail bar in Queens, is still Instagramming posts with the hashtag “#exploreCBD.” Ron Silver, owner of comfort-food emporium Bubby’s and a new CBD-edibles purveyor called Azuca, tells Grub Street that the health department is acting unreasonably: “Restaurants have received no guidance from New York City on the legal requirements of using CBD as an ingredient, despite many requests,” he says, adding that the crackdown “happened, by the way, less than two months after the Farm Bill was passed, which affirmatively removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act.”
Making matters more frustrating is that it can be difficult to determine who is even responsible for a given ban. If one ingredient demonstrates how dysfunctional the system can be, it’s foie gras: the treasured and highly controversial fatty livers of ducks and geese. In her proposal to outlaw foie gras in New York City, Councilwoman Rivera contends that gavage, the overfeeding technique used in the production of foie gras, is an “egregious” practice that restaurateurs have tolerated for “far too long.” The ongoing fight over the ethics of forcibly overfeeding ducks has wound its way through city councils, state legislatures, civil and appeals courts, the country of France, and, as of last month, even the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld a statewide ban in California.
The U.S. only has two significant foie gras producers: Hudson Valley Foie Gras and La Belle Farm, both upstate. (By comparison, America has about 230,000 chicken farms and 910,000 cattle ranches.) Hudson Valley Foie Gras owner Marcus Henley argues that the feeding required to make foie gras is a 5,000-year-old practice, and a far cry from torture. If some complain that gavage is “unnatural,” foie advocates say, those people should observe how the beef industry feeds cattle, or investigate the living conditions of the 9 billion broiler chickens processed last year. “Animal rights activists need to have some beachhead issues,” Henley argues. “If you’re them, and you want a win, who do you pick on? The beef or chicken industry? No.” He adds: “We’re farmers without a lot of resources, what Farm Sanctuary has admitted is ‘low-hanging fruit.’”
Small-market specialty foods have often been the targets of these bans: Sichuan peppercorns were outlawed from 1968 to 2005, because the spice could theoretically harbor a fungus that’s bad for citrus trees. Di Palo, meanwhile, is quick to mention Italian bresaola, illegal since 1930 thanks to FDA concerns about beef safety (except in the year 2000, when the agency briefly changed its mind). Tonka beans — raisin-y looking South American legumes with a flavor similar to that of vanilla beans — have been a no-no since 1954 because they contain a compound that has been linked to liver damage in rats when consumed in impossibly vast quantities.
This is not to say that all food bans are unnecessary or confusing: shark fin is illegal for a good reason. Others foods, like potentially toxic puffer fish and Sardinian maggot cheese, have obvious health risks. (Even Di Palo says he won’t eat that cheese.)
The reasoning behind certain other bans is less obvious, but they are still important. Laura MacCleery, the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s policy director, argues that New York’s trans-fat ban was ahead of the curve, and life-saving. (Ron Swanson, a fan of minimal government oversight, as well as a steak creation he calls “turf and turf,” might disagree.) But, as the head of a group that’s often pushing for more regulations, MacCleery says her strategy isn’t to demand bans by default. Instead, she pushes for solutions like labels on packaging, unless the product is clearly harmful to the general population, because “consumers have an expectation that they can vote with their dollars.”
Yet CBD’s popularity grows by the day, even if the jury’s still out about its medical potential: The biggest complaint about CBD — which has popped up in lattes, cookies, and cocktails, offering some kind of vague medicinal effect — is that it’s modern-day snake oil or, possibly even more damning, “definitely the turmeric of 2018.”
Nevertheless, CBD is legal in all 50 states, per the Farm Bill that President Trump signed in December, but the FDA has made it clear that the ingredient will be treated as an illegal additive in food until further notice. This is why the Health Department is cracking down, and it’s an example of why these bans can frustrate people: They feel arbitrary and subjective.
Di Palo contends that unpopular food bans bring out the closet libertarian in everyone, who would prefer to police their diets themselves and maybe take a cue from Ron Swanson himself, who famously offered his own defense of free-market food regulations: “The whole point of this country is, if you wanna eat garbage, balloon up to 600 pounds, and die of a heart attack at 43, you can.”