STEVE SPELLMAN: Ice cream saga raises questions about the nature of regulations

Thursday, June 16, 2011 | 5:51 p.m. CDT

Columbia is famous for many things: MU, the MKT and Katy trails, being Walmart founder Sam Walton’s boyhood home, and now the world-renowned home of cicada ice cream. That is, until the makers were intimidated away by over-restrictive health code regulations.

“You want flies with that, sir?”

The novelty of our short-term cicada infestation inspired a brainstorm among some staff members at Sparky’s Homemade Ice Cream. So when their creativity became reality, cicada ice cream was born. Once word of its existence and availability got out, the first,and only, half-batch sold out within an hour.

It was reported that the store manager saw to it that the cicadas were boiled and fully cooked through, being cognizant of standard sanitary food preparation, so they were not just dirty bugs thrown in a tub of vanilla. I went and talked with a guy I know who works at Sparky’s, Tony Layson, who clarified that after they first made some and sold out of it, the owner had it come to mind about what the health code might say about using this non-standard ingredient.

So the owner proactively called the Health Department to inquire if there were any guidelines about preparing cicadas. A staffer at the Public Health and Human Services Department replied with a chuckle and something like, “You know you can’t do that.” Many stories since (now spread around the world) fueled assumptions that the Health Department put the kibosh on it, something that isn’t exactly true. It sounds as though the Health Department official wasn’t overbearing or anything. It’s simply that the priorities are: 1.) All food in commercial food service has to be from a certified source, and 2.) The health code does not specifically address how cicadas should be cooked.  This might actually be a worse situation, since if the rules don’t allow for something, you simply “can’t do that.”

Beware the naturally occurring ingredients

So wild, natural ingredients are not allowed, especially natural ingredients not specifically on the government’s list of allowed foods. So even if the food were fresh (from somebody’s garden, or hunting spot), and from a seemingly healthy animal or plant, and cooked through in a reasonable fashion, the food derived from natural processes could still not be served in a restaurant, unless the hunter or owner had the proper certification.

That’s because you must have permission from the authorities, whose regulations exist to keep you safe. Hence, “You can’t do that,” even for food that might be good for you.

So cicada ice cream appears to be illegal. But here’s the thing: People bought it. Lots of people. And they gladly went out of their way to rush to Sparky's to purchase it with their own hard-earned money. And they told their friends, and they were happy about it, and there have been no reports of any resulting sickness or anything. The ice cream shop voluntarily made it and sold it, and the customers gladly bought it and ate it. And it’s against the law.

You can’t trust anybody, even the trustworthy

Can’t we trust a local merchant that obviously cares about serving the members of his or her community with a product the community clearly wants? Can’t we trust our fellow citizens with what they eat? If the food was bad, once word got around, people wouldn’t buy it anymore. If it actually hurt people, the law is sufficient to bring charges against the provider. If the customer used the product, then went and hurt somebody while under its influence, there are already laws against such aggression/negligence.

However, the law claims jurisdiction over what food may be sold. And if any parts of the food product are not specifically detailed in the health code, it apparently defaults to being outside the bounds of the law. That is: Cicada ice cream vendors and purchasers are outlaws. We are so conditioned to observe this authority, even when it is so obviously unreasonable, that we are just thankful enforcement isn’t directed to prosecute both the store and the customers who bought this contraband.

It’s not really about the cicadas

I admit, the fact that proper cicada preparation is not specifically provided for in the local health code, therefore you can’t put those things in ice cream, may seem trivial. Many people would not even buy cicada ice cream. I’m not sure I would. The story is silly, except this case is so representative of endless other liberties — both in the civil and economic sense – that we have lost over time.

Inflexible laws and regulations that seem to be aimed at misbehaving businesses end up restricting even quite desirable human creativity more than we realize. The Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture recently had to temporarily move its street-side produce stand, where it sells fresh, organic vegetables, because the garden plot’s residential zoning didn’t allow that. Red tape and confusing laws hold up those who try to build desirable and affordable housing such as the College and Walnut apartments, or in the saga of Amir Ziv’s cottage homes.

Government exists to protect our rights, to bring to justice people that unfortunately choose to kill, steal, defraud or poison their fellow citizens. But when the law seeks to protect us from each other in so many complex ways, even those with benevolent intentions, the collateral damage is often the stifling of human creativity, otherwise peaceful interactions and diverse activities.

Our individual and collective freedoms are subtlety lost to the endless laws and regulations on the books that no human can ever keep track of. These are regulations on autopilot. They assume to take our freedoms by default (even if in order to “protect” us) and are held up as seemingly gracious to give us some limited abilities back at all. Therefore, we are more trained to feel compelled to ask for permission from authorities before living our lives peacefully with each other. “Am I allowed to do that?” – well, you know you better ask for permission first.

Any laws that prevent us from living naturally and peacefully as we desire are themselves unnatural laws.

Steve Spellman hosts “The Mid-Missouri Freedom Forum” on KOPN/89.5 FM on Tuesday from 5 to 6 p.m. A longer version of this article may be found on the blogsite of Keep Columbia Free, a coalition of concerned Columbia citizens from different political backgrounds and walks of life who are devoted to protecting the civil liberties and natural rights of the citizens of Columbia and those who visit our wonderful city (even those who might desire bugs in their dessert).

Like what you see here? Become a member.

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Robin Nuttall June 17, 2011 | 9:01 a.m.

Just ask any new business owner in Columbia about trying to actually open a business in Columbia. It's a total nightmare. Complex and arcane rules, committees that conflict with each other, an mountain of bureaucracy that in the end means thousands and thousands of extra dollars in costs for the businesses.

Talk to Eric Reuter about his pig. Or better, go read his blog about it ( Basically, he wanted to raise a pig for sale and feed it leftover and not quite pretty enough for market sale vegetables from his organic farm. You know, things like lettuce and beats. Horrible, right? No? You don't think so? the State of Missouri does.

Common sense has flown out the window. And in almost all cases, it's the small business owner that gets stuck.

(Report Comment)
Jeff Perkin June 19, 2011 | 9:39 a.m.

Surely there must be a fine that the city can enforce and raise funds for the Walnut Street parking monster?!?!

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