Weighing Options for the Barbecue Bill
Sid Miller pleads for a veto
UPDATE: The veto effort failed. Governor Abbott signed HB 2029, the Barbecue Bill, on June 1st.
I also received the information requested from TDA about consumer complaints against barbecue joints. Operation Maverick was launched in December of 2015. In the roughly two years prior, the Weights & Measures division received 102 complaints. Most were directed at grocery stores and metal recyclers, with a surprising number lobbied against baggage scales in airports. Three were for barbecue joints. Of those complaints, two were for TDA stickers not being displayed on scales (at Smokey Mo’s BBQ in Bulverde and Clem Mikeska’s in Temple), and one was for an unnamed barbecue trailer parked in front of the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church at a lonely corner of County Road 405 and FM 2273 near Lake Brownwood. They were using a scale “not legal for trade.”
Since Operation Maverick began, Weights and Measures has received 96 consumer complaints to date. Four were for barbecue joints. Waller County Line BBQ northwest of Houston didn’t have a TDA sticker on their scale. A Rudy’s BBQ location in Round Rock was charging for the foil containers when weighing meat by the pound, and Barbecue Station in San Antonio had the power go out on their scales but kept serving. The only complaint about allegedly being shorted on meat was from a customer at Jambo’s BBQ Shack in Arlington who felt they weren’t provided the half pound of sausage they requested.
EARLIER: A butcher’s thumb on the scale is the oldest trick in the book when it comes to overcharging a customer. And Sid Miller, the Texas agriculture commissioner, would have you believe that his department’s regulations can save you from that sort of dishonesty. In a recent op-ed for the Texas Tribune, he defends a scale certification and registration fee imposed on barbecue joints and other weight-based places (think frozen yogurt shops) by the Texas Department of Agriculture, claiming that it “prevents any dishonest business owner from putting their thumb on the scale and ripping us off.” The TDA scale certification might ensure an accurate weight of said thumb, but it won’t stop any cheating pitmasters.
Miller’s op-ed was a response to Texas House Bill 2029, which was filed in February. Representative Lozano of Kingsville, who authored the bill, wants to exempt barbecue restaurants from having their scales certified by the TDA. The bill made it out of committee unopposed, then it passed the House by a vote of 146-1 in April and the Senate by a vote of 31-0. Now, Miller and the TDA are urging Governor Greg Abbott to veto the bill despite its overwhelming support in the Legislature. TDA spokesperson Mark Loeffler told me over the phone that he’s hopeful. “I think there’s better than a 50-50 chance it gets vetoed,” he said, citing positive social media response to a possible veto, including a Fox News poll.
If you’re wondering why our Legislature is arguing over scales, let’s rewind to a couple years back. Operation Maverick, a crackdown launched in June 2015, targeted any business buying or selling goods by weight. Barbecue joints had long fallen under the rule, which required that they had state certified scales, but it was rarely enforced until Miller requested $1.5 million from the state to bolster enforcement for the Weights and Measures program. Part of that effort was aimed at barbecue joints, which are also required to pay a yearly registration fee. In 2015, the TDA increased the fee (along with most every other Weights and Measures fee) and unleashed Operation Maverick to get barbecue joints in compliance. Letters were sent to approximately 1,000 locations urging them to certify and register their scales, then a team of badged inspectors were sent out to check scales all over the state.
Of course there were unhappy pitmasters, especially those who didn’t know about the rule. Owners like Michael Hernandez at Hays Co. BBQ and Russell Roegels of Roegels Barbecue Co. in Houston paid citations for uncertified scales and are now in compliance. But a couple other owners took a different path. Billy Woodrich of Billy’s Oak Acres BBQ in Fort Worth told WFAA he simply changed his menu, and now sells meat by the “chunk,” which is about a pound. Skeeter Miller did the same at County Line locations around the state, peddling his meat by the portion rather than pound.
Representative Lozano is a small business owner himself, running several Wing Stop locations (those do not sell by the pound). “You have someone with a badge scaring employees over scales, for a rule they never enforced until recently to raise revenue,” Lozano told the Austin American-Statesman. Meanwhile, on a recent episode of the Texas Standard, Miller defended the TDA position to host David Brown. He said a certified scale is used on the steer from the cattle auction to the restaurant, so why not require the scales to be certified in the restaurant? It’s a good point, but it doesn’t address why the same doesn’t apply in an upscale steakhouse where you’ll pay a hefty price for that bone-in, Prime ribeye advertised at 20 ounces. The chef would laugh if you insisted on going into the kitchen to see the steak weighed out on a certified scale before it hit the grill. As Bud Kennedy, who writes about both food and politics, asked in a recent article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “Do we really need state weighers to verify every 16-ounce rib-eye or Quarter Pounder?”
Texas Standard host Brown pointed out that there are already fraud laws on the books that could handle complaints about deceptive barbecue joint owners—if there are any complaints at all. Loeffler said he wasn’t aware of any specific barbecue-related consumer complaints to the Weights and Measure division, but he encouraged me to submit a records request to get the information, which I’ve done. PolitiFact Texas did get records for inspection reports about non-compliant barbecue scales, and found five barbecue joints in the state that showed too much weight. That about 0.25 percent of barbecue joints if you accept the rough number of 2,000 joints in the state.
Loeffler noted that most barbecue joint owners are honest, but for the minuscule percentage that aren’t, the law should be kept in place for consumer protection. But Kennedy thinks it a stretch to expect the governor to veto the bill for a problem that’s rarely, if ever, reported and has such a low percentage of offenders. “He would have to find something about the law that made it indefensible for the attorney general,” he told me. If the bill is signed by the governor as expected, it means the end of another fee that small business owners need to pay. Even if the bill is vetoed, as the TDA hopes, watch out for those literal thumbs on the scale. Or you can just trust your local pitmaster.