A disgusting display of bureaucratic force from the Chicago Department of Public Health

Lynne Kiesling

This is so vile, so disgusting that I am literally nauseated at my desk as I write. One of the ways that independent chefs, caterers and confectioners economize on their substantial fixed costs is by sharing kitchens. In Chicago, the business license treatment of such kitchens from the Chicago Department of Public Health has been uncertain: does the kitchen owner have to be the one with the license, or does each user of the kitchen have to have a separate license?

Last night, due to a paperwork miscommunication and Kafkaesque bureaucratic process of trying to sort this out, the Chicago Department of Public Health destroyed organic fruit purées that Flora Lazar of Flora’s Confections prepared over the summer and preserved to use in her much-touted and anticipated Valentine’s Day confections. These officials tore open the bags and bleached the food so that it could not be put to any use. I’m going to quote Chicago Tribune reporter Monica Eng here at length, because she was there, and her post illustrates exactly how senseless and appalling this destructive CDPH behavior is, but there is more at her post, including a depressing video of the CDPH officials destroying the food, so please do go read more there.

In a sad struggle that unfolded in a West Town kitchen Thursday night, Department of Health inspectors seized, slashed open and poured bleach over thousands of dollars of local peaches, pears, raspberry and plum purees owned by pastry chef Flora Lazar. She’d purchased the fruit from Green City Market farmers last summer and had planned to use it to make local fruit gelees for her business, Flora Confections.

More than $1,000 of food owned by the Sunday Dinner Club caterers was also destroyed by health department inspectors.

Inspectors cited no health problems with any of the food. They even encouraged Lazar’s son to eat the confiscated granola bars from Sunday Dinner Club. They only said the food was prepared by chefs who didn’t have the proper business licenses to prepare and sell it. …

The destruction of organic artisanal granola bars and local fruit from Klug Farm and Hillside Orchards is heartbreaking to any local food advocate. But for Flora Lazar, this setback, the week before Valentine’s Day is devastating.

“This puts me out of business for six months,” a despondent Lazar said. “I have done everything by the rules. Instead of making the food at home, which I could easily do, I sought out and rented space in a licensed kitchen. When they finally said we could apply for a separate license, I did that. I paid my $600 and invited the inspectors here today.”

If Lazar had been less transparent and left her cooler in her car during the inspection, she would probably be cooking today. Inspectors were mostly destroying food that had been prepared before their arrival. But she estimates that her honesty and attempt play by the rules just cost her $6,000 in revenue. She says the fruit purees, harvested at the peak of Midwest ripeness, are “irreplaceable.” …

But until recently the city had no clear policy regarding shared use kitchens, says Kitchen Chicago owner Alexis Levering. When she secured her latest space she said she confirmed with the Department of Licensing that it was zoned for shared use. The department further assured her that as the licenseholder, she would be responsible for any food safety issues associated with her clients, she says.

Later, though, Licensing said her clients would all need to apply for their own licenses, and with each application they’d need to get a new health inspection, giving the little niche kitchen exponentially more inspections than the busiest restaurants in Chicago.

But when Kitchen Chicago users went to the department, they were told again that they couldn’t apply for the license because it was at the same address as Levering’s license. The confusion continued for months until recently, Levering said, a department representative told her that now he would make sure that renters could apply for the licenses. He further told her, however, that any violations committed by one chef would mean a ticket for every cook who rents space in the facility, meaning possibly thousands of dollars reaped by the city for a minor infraction by one cook the others might have never met.

“That’s like giving everyone in the car their own ticket when a driver is stopped by the police,” she said.

This week, it seemed as if the kitchen was finally making progress with the department and, indeed, two of the businesses, Sunday Dinner Club and Flora Confections, had their license applications accepted, paid their fees and were told the inspectors would come Thursday.

The inspectors arrived at 9:30 a.m. and didn’t leave until nearly 5 p.m., when their final act was to destroy hundreds of pounds of local, organic, often unopened cheese, cassoulets, granola bars, frozen fruit purees, baking ingredients and more with a gallon of bleach.

Officials never said that the food posed a health risk. At best it was a victim of paper work confusion among city bureaucrats who couldn’t agree on a policy. But since no one at the city will comment on the situation, part of the story remains unclear.

Francis Guichard who is the CDPH food protection director called this morning to say that her inspectors could not allow the food to move from the building because they could not ensure where it was going. Licensing has still not commented on the issue.

At one point, one of the cooks suggested that the unopened food at least go to the Greater Chicago Food Depository rather than being destroyed. That request was denied. Watching the destruction of all of this perfectly edible food, you’d never know we live in a state where one out of 10 households doesn’t have enough food to eat.

The Health Department inspectors are expected back at the kitchen today to destroy the rest of the food they deem unlicensed.

These so-called “protectors of public health” destroy the inputs into an entrepreneur’s business in her busiest season, despite acknowledging that the destroyed food poses no health risk. These so-called “protectors of public health” destroy perfectly healthy food instead of even giving to hungry, needy people. On what grounds can these so-called protectors of public health have any legitimate claim to be doing valuable work on behalf of the people of Chicago? And I pay how many thousands of dollars in taxes every year to support this kind of wasteful, counter-productive, aggressive, megalomaniacal activity?

If these City of Chicago employees are indicative (and I think they are) of the attitude of city government toward entrepreneurship and toward the value of meaningless bureaucratic gestures that keep income out of the pockets of entrepreneurs and food out of the mouths of people, then I am truly ashamed and embarrassed to call this my home. It adds insult to injury that I pay such high taxes for the privilege of living in such a despotic city. Yes, I mean despotic; we Chicagoans know that there are many dimensions in which such a word is not hyperbole.

I also sympathize with the first commenter on Monica’s post:

And the Government still doesn’t think the Revolution is coming?