Which Is Government Protecting: Consumers From Food Poisoning, or Existing Businesses From Competition?
Apparently, Saint Louis isn’t alone in its issues with food trucks. The Institute for Justice launched a lawsuit challenging a mobile vending prohibition in El Paso, Texas, that prevents food trucks from operating within 1,000 feet of brick-and-mortar restaurants. The following is a video from KTSM NBC 9 about the lawsuit:
I recently highlighted how government can get in the way of a person and her pizza slice. A couple of Show-Me Daily commenters said that the food truck wasn’t banned from Edwardsville — its operators simply failed to apply for a permit.
According to a Riverfront Times article about the incident:
Reached for comment, Pi co-owner Chris Sommers forwarded us along to Fond owner and chef Amy Zupanci, who’d invited the pizza truck to park outside her restaurant. In return for her Welcome Wagon treatment, Zupanci received a call from the health department yesterday, and an in-person visit from an Edwardsville police captain.
“The Madison County Health Department says they don’t allow trucks of any kind to serve food,” Zupanci writes in an e-mail. “However, they also have a policy of no inspection necessary as long as you have a health certificate for ‘non-consecutive food events.’ This would include festivals, farmers’ markets, etc., which may happen once a week, but not back-to-back days.”
Reasoning that under that definition the Pi truck is an “event,” Zupanci inquired about a so-called Transient Merchant permit but hit a dead end: The health department directed her to the police department, which informed her that permits involving food must be approved by…the health department.
This doesn’t tell us that the truck is de jure banned, but it can be interpreted as a de facto bureaucratic ban if public officials refuse to award the certificate required to conduct business.
Enforcing food safety is the ostensible goal of requiring permits. Nobody’s arguing against food safety — I’m certainly not. I’ve contracted food poisoning before, and I felt like I was going to die. I wouldn’t wish food poisoning on anyone — not even on a Keynesian.
However, excessive permit requirements can create a barrier to entry in the market, and keeping a number of competitors out of the market may be the unstated goal of the regulation. My friend and colleague Josh Smith explains the negative effects of this in a comment on my previous blog post:
When a local government requires some level of oversight for vendors, can it be called a “ban”? Perhaps not. If it is the case, however, that the Pi truck is not allowed to sell food in Edwardsville without the approval (through a form, or some other process) of the government, this constitutes an infringement on the right of the Pi truck to sell and the Edwardsville pizza customers to buy.
Even if this layer of bureaucracy seems small, it’s often small changes that have unfortunate marginal effects on markets. What seems like a simple matter to some may be not worth it to others.
Reputation capital can serve as an alternative (and perhaps more reliable) means of signaling quality and safety than a certificate from a local health board — a certificate that likely doesn’t signal much of anything in the way of rigorous investigation of potential health hazards. Dan Klein at the Cato Institute has published a good piece on the subject, “How Trust Is Achieved in Free Markets.”