Friday, May 27, 2011

Yogurt Wars: One Family's Struggle Against California's Nanny State

The British news magazine The Economist has the tragicomic story of Homa Dashtaki, an Iranian immigrant in Orange County who attempted to start a gourmet yogurt business with her family. If you've been wondering why so many people think California is an awful place for private business, this story is for you.

The story begins with Dashtaki's father, who brought with him to California a traditional and delicious recipe for yogurt. Homa had the idea of turning the yogurt into a small business: preparing it painstakingly in a rented space in an Egyptian restaurant's kitchen, and selling it in small quantities at local farmers' markets. While it lasted, Dashtaki took in about $300 in revenues every week, not quite enough to see any profit. And yet, while she spent a year getting all the required permits from Orange County, she was unaware of another source of red tape, the California Department of Food and Agriculture's "milk and dairy food safety branch", who recently threatened her with prosecution if she didn't stop selling the yogurt. When she started doing research to form a response to CDFA, she discovered just how thick that red tape was.

For one thing, the rules regulating sales of yogurt date back to 1947, and have only been modified in the case of soft-serve or frozen yogurt. As such, the regulations all assume that regular yogurt is made from raw, not pasteurized milk. Dashtaki, however, was making her yogurt with pasteurized milk, and even produced the gallon jugs containing the milk, which were purchased from an approved grocery. If you think that would've been enough for the state to grant her a waiver, well, you clearly don't understand regulation in California. Dashtaki was instead ordered to set up a "Grade A" dairy plant, which would include a pasteurizer "with a recorder", a culture tank, and a filler with a mechanical capper to screw on jar lids. To cap it off, the inspector agreed with her objection that changing the manufacturing process would ruin the taste of her father's yogurt. Soldiering on, she then discovered that the inspector's order conflicted with another CDFA regulation against re-pasteurizing milk; so she would've needed an exemption from this rule to comply with the first one. Her proposal to label the yogurt containers "This product does not meet CDFA codes" was also shot down.

At this point, Dashtaki is deciding whether to move to a state with less onerous regulations, or to give up altogether. In all, just another day at the office for California's job-killing bureaucracy.

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