The 26 page definition of a biscuit

Sometimes you have to feel sorry for the Government.

There’s a problem when it takes 26 pages to tell you what this is.

On the one hand they are constantly criticised for making laws that are cumbersome, unwieldy, hard to enforce and costly for business to comply with. But on the other hand, no sooner is a law passed and no matter how plain the spirit and intention of that law, there is someone trying to find a loophole to get around it to make a profit. This leaves the government having to close the loophole, followed by someone trying to get around the new law which, in turn leads to – well – cumbersome and unwieldy laws.

It’s also a process that often produces the opposite result to that intended. A classic example of the syndrome is the evolution of the United States military’s purchasing specification for biscuits in the 1980s.

You’d think buying biscuits was pretty simple. Specify what you want, accept the lowest bid and send the cookies off to the troops. But every time the US military thought they had made their requirements clear they discovered the successful bidder had cut costs somewhere to acheive the lowest bid with an unacceptable result. Each time the military had to tighten the specification to ensure that next time they got what they needed.

Of course, every time the specs looked complete, unscrupulous bidders would find somewhere else to cut costs requiring a further tweak of the rules. The result? The definition for biscuits ended up running to 26 pages.

So ridiculous did it become that to define what an acceptable biscuit was needed references to the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Primary Drinking Water Regulations, the US Department of Agriculture’s Regulations Governing the Inspection of Eggs and Egg Products and the American Society for Testing and Materials standards for Tensile Properties of Thin Plastic Sheeting, Flow Rates of Thermoplastics by Extrusion Plastometer and Density of Plastics by Density Gradient Technique.

There was no chance of dodgy peanuts being used, they were defined as: Nuts, almonds, shelled. Shelled almond pieces shall be of the small piece size classification and shall be U.S. No. 1 Pieces of the U.S. Standards for Grades of Shelled Almonds. A minimum of 95 per cent, by weight, of the pieces shall pass through a 4/16-inch diameter round hole screen and not more than 5 per cent, by weight, shall pass through a 2/16-inch diameter round hole screen. The shelled almonds shall be coated with an approved food grade antioxidant and shall be of the latest season’s crop.
After stipulating the recipe and method (Mix flour, nuts, and flavors together and fold into batter; mix until uniform) it then described what the end result had be (The weight of the coated brownie shall be not less than 46 grams. The texture of the brownie shall be firm but not hard).

Perhaps the lowest point was reached when it was found necessary to specify ­ – several times – that the finished product shall be free of “foreign material such as, but not limited to, dirt, insect parts, hair, wood, glass, or metal” and that there “shall be no foreign odor or flavor such as, but not limited to, burnt, scorched, stale, sour, rancid, musty, or moldy.”

The end result of the attempts to purchase good quality biscuits efficiently was that commercial biscuit makers couldn’t afford to tender because of the compliance costs and the few who did charged a fortune.

So what’s this got to do with beer?

The Federal Government is currently going through the process of having to redefine what beer is. This has been brought about by its war on alcopops. The RTD makers, unhappy with the increase in the alcopops tax, got around it by making beer in such a way as to have no beer flavour, just the alcohol, and then added fruit flavourings and sugar to mask the alcohol taste for sale to a generation raised on sweet, fizzy soft drinks.

The government is responding by amending the definition of beer to set maximum levels of sugars and minimum levels of bitterness to close this loophole. Unfortunately, the only victim in the battle between Treasury and Big Alcohol will be the country’s small craft brewing industry.

The large brewers, with solidly mainstream products, fully maintained laboratories and the means to demonstrate compliance won’t be troubled. The alcopop makers will go back into their laboratories to work out another way to skirt the definition and still pump out alcoholic cordial at the cheapest possible price. Meanwhile craft brewers, who already eke out a tenuous existence in the margins of the wider alcohol industry and do not possess the expensive equipment needed to prove compliance or the financial means to test each batch, will struggle to demonstrate compliance. In some cases, their beers – traditional styles brewed to traditional recipes – may not even meet the definition of beer due to the techniques used or the style made. In any close, many of these small businesses are concerned that they will be forced out of business.

Ironically, the most interesting and least “bingeable” sector of the alcohol market will most likely be the only victim of the Government’s binge drinking campaign.

It drives you to drink really.

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