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Keeping Tradition Alive (despite the risks)

There is much to be said for tradition, especially as it relates to food.  When my mother was alive, her tradition at Christmas was to make twice-baked potatoes, which she prepared the day ahead and set in the garage to await baking at the appointed time.  It was not particularly cold in the garage, and I always wondered about the safety of her practice (me being an attorney who represents victims of foodborne illness).  But no one ever got sick from eating these deliciously creamy, cheese-topped potatoes, and I never said word-one to my mother about the possibility of her putting her family at risk.

made-rite-featured.jpgAnd that is the funny thing about tradition.  When something is done a certain way for a long period of time, and doing it that way always seems to work, there will always be strong resistance to change.  Indeed, the response–We’ve always done it this way–is typically accepted as a sufficient justification for just about anything, including a decades-old cooking procedure for the ground beef used in Maid-Rite sandwiches.  Over the protests of many, including public health professionals, physicians, and my law partner, Bill Marler, it appears that the Iowa Legislature is about to grant a legal waiver that would allow certain Maid-Rite franchises to continue cooking ground beef as originally done by the creators of this Midwestern classic, loose-meat sandwich.[1] This is how the ongoing dispute was described in the Des Moines Register:

“The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals has told Taylor’s Maid-Rite restaurant that it must alter its process for cooking the company’s loose-meat sandwiches.  The process at Taylor’s involves cooked hamburger being placed in the same heated receptacle that’s used to cook raw meat. It’s a practice that state and federal officials, as well as the Maid-Rite Corp. and the Iowa Environmental Health Association, say is unsafe and could lead to cross-contamination.

“The restaurant’s owners, Don and Sandy Short, are refusing to change the process. They say their cooking methods represent a tradition that dates back 80 years.

“Last week, they handed out Maid-Rites to lawmakers and asked them to intervene. On Tuesday, Sen. Steven Sodders, D-State Center, did just that. Sodders introduced an amendment to a bill that provides funding for the entire inspections department. The amendment would enable Maid-Rite restaurants that still use the old method of cooking to continue to do so.”[2]

Defending the proposed waiver, Senator Sodders framed the tradition-versus-safety question well.  “I think we have to look at tradition,” he said. “I’m representing my district, and the people there, far and away, would like Taylor’s to continue to prepare their Maid-Rites in the traditional way.”  Such protection of a “traditional way” also encompasses a political argument that is decidedly libertarian in its approach.  For example, the creator of a Facebook fan page intended to drum up support for Taylor’s Maid-Rite is quoted as saying: “It’s not about loose-meat sandwiches.  It’s about this family….It’s time for the government to leave this family alone.”[3] Thus, apparently some see the attempt to uniformly enforce food safety rules on all restaurants as an attack not only on tradition, but on a family too.
Such hyperbole in defense of family and tradition is neither surprising nor terribly troubling.  But when hyperbole becomes winning argument there is much about which we should be concerned.  For one thing, the defenders of “tradition” too conveniently overlook that “tradition” is a decidedly fluid thing.  As pointed out in the Des Moines Register article: “By all accounts, the cooking method used by Taylor’s was abandoned years ago by most other Maid-Rites.  Those restaurants place their cooked meat in a container that’s segregated from meat still being cooked.”  Secondly, we should be cautious about the weight that we grant the label of “tradition” in justifying a practice that, in its absence, few if any would defend.  

This latter point was well made in the editorial published in the Des Moines Register, in which it criticized the idea that “siding with tradition” was defense enough to a practice that could put the public health in danger.  The editorial ends, stating:

“[Supporters of Taylor’s Maid-Rite] apparently think a practice is OK just because it’s been around for many years. But that’s a fallacy. It’s why people wear seat belts and doctors don’t ‘bleed’ patients to cure diseases and employees aren’t smoking in the office now. When we realize there are safer ways of doing things to protect lives, we do them.

“When Iowa lawmakers cook at home, they can do whatever they want. They don’t have to wash their hands. They can lick the spatula or eat hamburger raw, if they so desire.

“But Iowa businesses serving customers need to implement basic practices to ensure food is safe. That should be this state’s ‘tradition.'”[4]

This distinction–between food-traditions followed at home, versus those marketed for commercial purposes to the public–is an important one to keep in mind. Although our instinct is no doubt to protect tradition from the in-roads of technology and modern ways, tradition cannot always be protected solely for the sake of tradition itself.  In making her delicious twice-baked potatoes, my mother would have never put her family knowingly at risk, and, I am sure, never did.  There was nothing used to make those potatoes that could not, for the most part, be safely kept in the cool-but-not-below-40-degrees of the garage.  And, in any case, the potatoes were cooked in a hot oven to crispy perfection, reaching temperatures more than sufficient to kill whatever pathogens could have been present.  Even so, I am certain that if I had told her of a specific safety risk, she would have happily changed tradition to keep her family safe.  I wonder then, why it’s so hard for Taylor’s Maid-Rite to agree to such a change. 

Could it be that the reluctance to change is really about the cost of new and safer equipment, and the restaurant’s bottom-line?  Would a business actually put profits above safety?  Now there’s an American “tradition” that’s easy to recognize!


1.  Coincidentally, I have actually eaten a Maid-Rite loose-meat sandwich.  While working on a case arising from an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in Northern Minnesota, an outbreak linked to meatballs served as part of a smorgasbord at the Salem Lutheran Church in Longville.  At least 17 people became ill as part of this outbreak, and, tragically, one woman died.  (You can read about this outbreak, and the resulting litigation, here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/08/business/08feed.html) In my travels “up north,” on several occasions I flew into Brainerd and stayed overnight there.  Because my father, also recently passed, was born there, I decided to try to find some “authentic” place to eat, since I have always thought that the way to get a feel for a place is to eat where the locals have been eating for decades.  The place that I found to eat was The Barn, which opened in 1945 by a family from Iowa.  It was part of the original Maid-Rite franchise, and so it has been serving Maid-Rite loose-meat sandwiches for a long time.  From all reports, The Barn is also well known for its home-made pies, which excited me to no end, because I love good pie.  I ended up stopping at The Barn on my way to the airport, having an hour or so to kill before I had to catch my flight to Minneapolis, from where I would fly home to Seattle.  Once settled in at the counter, I ordered a Maid-Rite Sandwich with mustard and pickle
s, having learned somehow (I can’t remember where) that it is sacrilege to put ketchup on a Maid-Rite sandwich.  I also ordered a slice of peach pie.  The verdict?  I found the Maid-Rite Sandwich on the dry side, and not terribly flavorful, despite the hefty squirt of mustard, and the pickles.  This is no doubt the result of the fat being cooked away, leaving behind crumbly, dry bits of ground beef. So I was not terribly impressed, although I must admit that I’m a big fan of sloppy joes, so I was probably biased against a dry loose-meat sandwich from the start.  As for the pie?  It was dreadful. So sweet that it made my teeth hurt.  The crust was excellent, however, which is really what matters most with pie.      

2.  Clark Kaufman, “Is Marshalltown Maid-Rite’s process safe or not?” Des Moines Register, Mar. 10, 2010, online at http://www.desmoinesregister.com/article/20100310/NEWS10/3100359/Is-Marshalltown-Maid-Rite-s-process-safe-or-not See also Dave DeWitte, “State Examines Safety of Marshalltown Maid-Rite’s Loose Meat,” at http://www.kcrg.com/news/business/87114227.html

3.  Ken Black, “Rally draws support for Taylor’s Made-Rite,” Times Republican, March 13, 2010, at http://www.kcrg.com/news/business/87114227.html

4.  “Make sure Maid-Rites aren’t made wrong,” Des Moines Register, March 15, 2010, available at http://www.desmoinesregister.com/article/20100315/OPINION03/3150303/Make-sure-Maid-Rites-aren-t-made-wrong 

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