By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
No one would argue with Bhatt's assertion that food safety is the department's prime mission. But there's a reason the truth-in-menu laws were included in the health code. It takes an expensive lab test to prove the pork-for-veal swap, and the only way to find out what kind of fish is being served is to barge into a restaurant's kitchen and look in the refrigerator or freezer. Consumers don't have the power to do that. Health department inspectors do.
The health department's inspectors are already barging into restaurant kitchens, and they're already observing these frauds. It's not exactly rocket science. Take my experience at Baytown Seafood on Main Street, for example. When I asked the manager there to prove that his catfish was the farm-raised American product ("Bigger and Battered," May 1, 2003), he led me to his freezer. On the way, I passed a sink in which bags of tilapia were thawing. But Baytown Seafood doesn't have any tilapia on its menu, just catfish and "redsnapper." When I asked him about it, the owner freely admitted that he was calling tilapia "redsnapper," a blatant violation of the state health code.
How many of these obvious infractions are Houston health department inspectors seeing every day? How hard would it be to write them up? And while they're in the kitchen, why not check to see if restaurants that offer veal actually have any in the refrigerator? How long would it take for Houston restaurants to clean up their acts once word got out that the health inspector was writing up truth-in-menu violations?
If you think losing points on a health department inspection is not a suitably severe punishment for some of the more serious consumer rip-offs, remember that health department reports are public records. Once the frauds are reported, the restaurants would endure the wrath of the community, be open to civil suits and be subject to possible action from the attorney general's office -- not to mention the likelihood that Channel 13's dreaded Marvin Zindler might pay them a visit.
So how do we get the health department to enforce the law? Right now, our new mayor, Bill White, is soliciting suggestions from the public at www.ideasforhouston.com.
I have an idea for Houston.
I invite readers of this newspaper, food lovers, the Jewish community, the Muslim community and all of those Houston boosters who claim this is a world-class city to join me in sending Bill White a six-word message that could really change our community for the better: Enforce the truth-in-menu laws.