Meals on Wheels

Food truck owners, local farmers discuss anti-competitive regulations

March 1, 2013

Food truck owners, local farming advocates, and anti-regulation activists criticized food safety regulations Thursday at a panel at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), saying the regulations limit competition by placing impossible obstacles on local farmers and food trucks.

Businesses are using outdated regulations to attempt to force food trucks—mobile venders offering everything from fish tacos to pizza slices on D.C. streets—out of business.

"[The] regulatory scheme [in D.C.] is antiquated in the least," D.C. Food Truck Association leader Doug Povich said at the event.

The Food Truck Association, which formed in 2011 and works with local food trucks to challenge unfair regulations, currently encompasses D.C. and is expanding to Fairfax and Arlington.

Povich named a number of regulations 40 years and older, including the "ice cream truck rule" that lets food trucks stop only if a line has been formed. Food trucks have to leave their location when there is no longer a line.

"We’ve overcome that obstacle with Facebook [and] Twitter" by notifying patrons of food truck locations in advance, Povich said.

There are also strict regulations for how long a food truck can stay in one location, with the time varying from place to place. Food trucks in Arlington can stay in one place for just 60 minutes or face a fine of $2,500 and possible jail time.

Povich recounted food trucks staying in one parking spot before moving to the next space, only to be fined anyway "because of the vagueness of the law."

Advocates for small farms and local food production emphasized the need for appropriate regulations that focus on food safety and not competition.

"Most of the things [a local farmer] wants to do are barred," clinical instructor at the Harvard Law School Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation Emily Leib said.

"He’s really trying to grow food on a farm that’s safe and healthy and actually finds the things he wants to do are really hard," Leib said.

Food safety regulations have been a tool of big businesses to stifle competition for over a century, Washington Examiner senior political columnist Tim Carney said at the roundtable.

He cited the most famous examples of food safety regulations, the meat packing laws spurred on by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

Carney said the meat industry "packers were warm friends of [the] regulations." Large-scale meat packers could afford the changes, and they worked with lawmakers to target smaller competitors, eventually pushing them out of the market.

Carney also mentioned Heinz Ketchup’s long push to ban artificial preservatives from all ketchup in the early 1900s—not because of a safety risk but because Heinz was the only ketchup manufacturer at the time not using artificial preservatives.

"This is a large part of the history of food regulation," Carney said.

"Food safety regulation is not this simple morality tale of big government cracking down on big businesses," Carney said. "It’s a lot more complex."

Lunch at the discussion was provided by the BBQ Bus food truck.