The foodie crackdown - Page 2

Regulators shut down Underground Market, triggering debate over permits and food safety

From homemade Kombucha to gourmet pizza, the Underground Market was a foodie's playground before it was shut down

He says that on the whole, people cooking small batches pay much more attention to their ingredients and processes than industrial food companies do. Rabin said that while the country's food safety system works pretty well, it doesn't allow for much locally based innovation in new models for making and sharing food.

"The Health Department's position makes sense because this is the system that has existed, this is the system that they know and that their jobs support, and it's a system that works in a lot of ways. But it's also a system that was really created for industrial processes," Rabins says. "Unfortunately the way regulations work, top-down is one-size-fits-all, but that's just not the way it is."

That gets to the meat of the issue: whether and how much the city should get involved in people's food habits. Where is the line between public restaurants and private homes — and are there ways of creating hybrids of the two? It's an ongoing battle in San Francisco between regulating restaurants (and netting taxes) while still promoting an innovative food industry that attracts locals and tourists alike.

In the past few years, the mobile food truck craze has hit San Francisco with little bits of foodie culture from all over the world. Entrepreneurs say it's too difficult and expensive to start a successful restaurant in SF, so they're trying small-time pop-ups instead.

At first they went unregulated, but now laws define what they can sell, the permits they need, and limit their mobility. Permits are expensive too, starting at $1660 for initial basic coverage, which is why Rabins says the Underground Market provides an additional support for motivated locals. As city officials have closed big budget deficits year after year without any substantial increases in general tax revenue, fees and permit costs have risen substantially in recent years.

According to Rabins, getting the Underground Market up to code means, "getting all the vendors commercial kitchen space, making them get catering licenses, which is around $600, making them pay for vendor event permits, which is $140 per event, and then I would have to buy a sponsor permit which is another $1200 per event plus event insurance plus, plus, plus all these things that would essentially destroy the spirit of the event. It would make the bar way too high."

Tightening the membership rules is another option, such as making people sign up weeks in advance or requiring member cards. Richard Lee, the director of environmental health regulatory programs at SFPHD, says that regardless of the vendor's complaints, the regulations must be met.

"We think that these are reasonable options," Lee said. "Anyone who is going to sell to the public needs to meet certain requirements, and unfortunately some of those requirements are going to be costly. They have to pay for permits and whatever those permits cost they're going to have to pay."

Until some agreement can be reached, the Underground Market won't be operating, and San Franciscans will have to find their fix at the numerous above ground markets and restaurants. Lee says that he hopes that the market meets city demands, and soon, as this kind of entrepreneurial innovation is essential to a thriving food economy.

"We do encourage the micro-enterprises, and there are possible ways to have that started in San Francisco," Lee said. "It is possible that there may be legislation in the future that might be supported by the Board [of Supervisors] to make it easier for them to get permitted, so there are things that can be done. For us, though, it is food safety and public health that are the most important things."

But Rabins is already looking far beyond just the small market model.


Look at what happened in LA yesterday when Rawesome, a private, member-supported co-op, was raided for selling unpasteurized milk. The food regulators need to develop new and innovative ways of dealing with the growth of non-traditional markets and micro-enterprises seeking new ways of introducing fresh, local and organic food to people. Their current approach is very top-down and that should change.

Posted by Right on Sister Snapples on Aug. 05, 2011 @ 8:28 am

Yes, mz snaps, here's a good recent article in the economist about the insane hoops instituted in the early 70s that California small batch producers must go through: -- funny how normal enormous food recalls have become, yet small-batchers get the crackdown ...

Posted by marke on Aug. 05, 2011 @ 9:02 am

I am all for encouraging an "innovative food scene." However, we have public health laws for a reason, which is to prevent food contamination and the spread of disease.

So-called "small batch" producers are not exempt from the laws of nature, and "small batch," "locally grown," and "organic" food can cause illness just as easily as food produced by big industrial producers if basic safety and sanitary procedures are not followed. The individuals serving food at the event should have known better than to serve food without washing their hands, even most ordinary folks making food at home for themselves and their families understand the importance of following basic sanitary procedures, such as hand washing.

Mr. Rabins either needs to get the basic permits and follow the standard food safety and sanitary procedures, or he needs to keep his cooking parties limited to his own kitchen, though I must say neither I nor other like-minded people concerned about our health would be very much interested in coming over for dinner, unless he and his friends learn to wash their hands.

Posted by Chris on Aug. 07, 2011 @ 5:53 am

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