By KELLI B. GRANT MarketWatch
New laws are making it more difficult for some Americans to indulge in their favorite eats.
Recently, California put into effect a ban on foie gras-a fattened duck or goose liver dish that animal-welfare advocates say is inhumane because it requires the force-feeding of animals. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed a ban on sugary drinks exceeding 16 ounces, while Massachusetts recently passed a law, to take effect in August, that will limit students' access to junk food during the school day.
Those looking for restricted foods may not be totally out of luck, however. Most laws and food codes are at the state, or even county, level. They're also difficult to enforce, food experts say.
"Any time there's an attempt to ban a food, it just makes the food sexier, like Prohibition," said Douglas Powell, a professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology at Kansas State University, where he runs the food safety blog "Barfblog."
That leads to grass-roots groups that fight the legislation, and efforts among eaters to find ways to buy restricted foods.
Diners may not even have to travel to another state to indulge in their favorite banned food. Experts say they can often find a restaurant or supplier willing to bend the rules. Of course, health-safety concerns may make that a bad idea, Powell said. Unlike foie gras, which was banned for animal-rights concerns, many foods including rare burgers and raw milk are outlawed with the aim of protecting consumers from food-borne illness.
As some Californians lament the loss of foie gras from upscale restaurants across the state, here are five other foods consumers may not see on the menu, depending on where they live and travel.
1. Raw milk
Sales of raw, unpasteurized milk are prohibited in 20 states, and interstate sales are not allowed, said a spokeswoman for the Food and Drug Administration. The problem? Although proponents say raw milk is more nutritious, both the FDA and Centers for Disease Control counter that it can be contaminated with dangerous bacteria-such as salmonella, listeria and E. coli-that pasteurization kills. A recent CDC study found that raw milk was 150 times more likely to cause a food-borne illness than pasteurized milk.
Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Department of Health identified nearly 80 cases of Campylobacter infections in four states, linked to raw milk from a local farm.
Even in states that do allow the sale of raw milk, consumers may have a tough time finding it. Pennsylvania, for example, has only 153 farms that hold permits for raw milk, said Samantha Krepps, press secretary for the state's Department of Agriculture. That's 2 percent of the state's roughly 7,400 farms.
2. High-alcohol beer
Most beers average 4 percent to 6 percent alcohol by volume, but as craft brews flourish, there are more outliers. Schorschbrau Schorschbock, a German beer, contains a staggering 43 percent, while domestically produced Samuel Adams Triple Bock has 17.5 percent. But some states prohibit the sale of such high-alcohol beer. Ohio, for example, only allows sales of beer with 12 percent alcohol or less.
Some states have raised their limits in recent years, but those limits may still be low enough to exclude some brews. Effective July 1, Mississippi permits the sale of beers with up to 10 percent alcohol by volume, up from 6.3 percent previously. In 2009, Alabama raised its cap from 6 percent to 13.9 percent. Other states limit where high-alcohol beer can be sold. Utah, for example, has no cap on alcohol by volume, but sells beer above 4 percent only in state-run liquor stores. A spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control says it's not limiting for residents: there are 45 state stores, and more than 100 "package" stores that sell a smaller selection. "We do over $300 million in sales every year," she said.
3. Undercooked beef
Forget about that rare burger, or even a medium-rare one. Food codes in a handful of states, including North Carolina and California, as well as local laws, prohibit restaurants from serving customers meat that hasn't been cooked to about 160 degrees Fahrenheit. In some places, it's a county by county battle, Powell said. Larry Michael, head of the food protection program for North Carolina's Division of Public Health, said the state's law - which requires cooking ground beef and select other cuts to 155 degrees Fahrenheit - dates back to E. coli outbreaks in the 90s. Cooking meats to that high internal temperature kills harmful bacteria.
Laws have been shifting to allow consumers more choice. North Carolina is moving to adopt the federal food code, which allows restaurants to serve those uncooked or lesser-cooked meats, provided they add a warning on the menu of the health risks. Some states, like South Carolina, have similar provisions in their food codes-but still prohibit undercooked burgers when the person ordering is younger than 18.
This anise-flavored spirit contains trace amounts of the chemical compound thujone, which the FDA said it considers an unsafe additive. Regulations require beverages containing certain plant species-including main absinthe ingredient wormwood-be thujone-free. That prevented European brands from importing their absinthe to the U.S., and travelers from bringing it home as a souvenir. In 2007 the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau clarified the regulation to allow items with a verified thujone content of less than 10 milligrams per kilogram. The European Union allows up to 35 milligrams of thujone per kilogram.
But some experts say the FDA's limits are overly cautious. "Whatever effects that people talk about, it has nothing to do with thujone," said absinthe historian and research scientist T.A. Breaux, whose studies of vintage absinthes have found thujone levels ranging from zero up to 48 milligrams per kilogram. Differences in the thujone level have no noticeable difference in taste, he said. Or safety. In comparison, he said, known poison hydrogen cyanide is legal in foods up to 25 milligrams per kilogram.
The primary difference is that the lower U.S. thujone limit makes it tougher for European distillers to send their products stateside, given natural variations in the plant-based spirit, he said. Federal regulations do help out consumers in one area, however: spotting fake bottles. The U.S. requires distillers to list additives like sugar and artificial colors, neither of which should be present in real absinthe, Breaux said. "You can put anything in a bottle and call it absinthe," he said. "They can't hurt you, but they can hurt your wallet."
5. Junk food in schools
Several states have taken steps to limit students' access to unhealthy food in school. A Massachusetts law taking effect in August will limit access to junk food during school days. California was a forerunner, banning soft drinks in schools and limiting the fat, sugar and calories of items found in school vending machines. In 2006, Indiana also passed a law requiring that at least half of the contents in vending machines be healthy options such as drinks that contain at least 50 percent real fruit or vegetable juice, and foods that get less than 30 percent of their total calories from fat.
National standards could be next, said Daniel Taber, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois' Institute for Health Research and Policy, and an author of a recent study on the impact of California's legislation. According to the study, California high-school students consumed 158 fewer calories than kids in other states, enough of a difference to help avoid weight gain.
But the restrictions aren't perfect, Taber said. For example, not all the OK'd snacks are healthy, per se, and kids have plenty of opportunity to compensate by eating junk at home, or bringing it to school with them. "Just because a kid isn't eating a high-fat, high-sugar candy bar, it doesn't mean he's eating a spinach salad in its place," he said.