Chicago Alderman Edward Burke may be the staunchest elected opponent of food freedom in America whose name you've never heard.
While New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg gets all the press—often with good reason—the fact that Ald. Burke commands little or no national attention is likely more a function of his Second City residence and second-banana title ("Dean of the Chicago City Council") than it is of any lack of regulatory zeal.
In recent years, Burke has used his vast sway as the aforementioned dean, longest-serving and most powerful member of the city council, and chair of the council's finance committee increasingly to undermine the right of Chicagoans to make their own food choices.
In 2006, he introduced an ordinance that would have made Chicago the first large city in the nation to prohibit restaurants from cooking with trans fats.
"If the restaurants won't voluntarily change their policy and adopt a healthy means of preparation," Burke told PBS NewsHour after introducing the bill, "then I think that it's clear that municipal government has the right to step in and legislate."
That same year, Burke voted in favor of the city's foie gras ban—though his parliamentary skills later helped to sink it.
But even Burke's rationale for this seeming reversal is a telling nod to power, rather than to freedom.
Then, in 2010, Burke co-sponsored a proposed ban on caffeinated beers in Chicago—where Four Loko maker Phusion Projects is based.
The latest target for Burke, 69, who has held the same alderman's chair since 1969—nearly two-thirds of his life—is popular energy drinks like Red Bull and Monster. An ordinance Burke introduced last week would ban from the city all sales of energy drinks containing more than 180 mg of caffeine and also containing either guarana or taurine (common energy drink ingredients).
Burke's proposed ban is part of a larger move against energy drink makers across the country. In New York, for example, state attorney general Eric T. Schneiderman has subpoenaed a handful of energy drink makers, claiming the industry may be "deceiving consumers with misstatements about the ingredients and health value of its products." The FDA is investigating up to five deaths over several years that the agency claims may be tied to energy drinks. Congress is considering new regulations pertaining to energy drinks. And papers from coast to coast, including the editors of the San Jose Mercury News and The New York Times (in the form of reporter Barry Meier, who Jacob Sullum notes has been crusading against energy drinks for some time) have pushed increased regulations.
The penalties in Burke's proposed ban on energy drinks mirror those he recommended for selling caffeinated beers—a fine of up to $500 and the potential loss or suspension of a city-mandated license.
"These energy drinks, if they're consumed in large amounts, especially by kids, can have serious health implications," Burke told WGN last week.
That's probably true of energy drinks—but also of coffee, tea, soda, juice, alcohol, water, and any other beverage.
And, in truth, energy drinks look a lot like a lot of other beverages.
On an ounce for ounce basis, popular energy drinks often contain much less caffeine than coffee and other, more genteel beverages. An 8.5 ounce can of Red Bull, for example, contains 80 mg of caffeine. That's 100 mg less than a comparable (short) cup of Starbucks coffee, which boasts 180 mg of caffeine.
So why didn't Burke propose to ban coffee? Here's one hint: Burke apparently likes coffee.
If Burke's ordinance were to pass, its unintended consequences would be manifold. It would harm Chicago's struggling economy while enriching the coffers of suburban convenience stores, grocers, and other energy drink sellers—which would gain customers who normally bought their energy drinks in Chicago.
The ordinance would also likely result in the introduction and dominance of new players into Chicago's market. City stores that could no longer stock drinks banned under the law would simply switch to selling higher-caffeine products that don't contain guarana or tuarine—like SK Energy shots and others on the horizon that contain oddball additives like "synthetic Asian hornet larvae secretion."
In a recent interview with BeverageDaily.com, noted food and beverage attorney Justin Prochnow called the ordinance deeply flawed and predicted it would not pass.
Prochnow said the language of the ordinance contains "false statements" that are "clearly untrue"—including a patently false claim that energy drinks are "unregulated."
Prochnow's right. And, in my opinion, the ordinance contains several other seemingly fatal flaws. But they're ones I'd rather not share in print (lest Burke simply revise the ordinance). In that spirit: Hey Red Bull—call me, maybe?