Mules with a shot of government overreach

A selection of bottles at the second floor bar at Muddy Waters in Cedar Rapids.(File photo)
A selection of bottles at the second floor bar at Muddy Waters in Cedar Rapids.(File photo)

State regulators are cracking down on your local watering hole.

Iowa authorities released a notice last week warning liquor dealers they can’t serve Moscow Mule cocktails from copper mugs. Iowans now can be assured their alcohol — literal poison with easily observable health consequences — will be protected from trace amounts of copper, an essential mineral for human life.

If you’re struggling to remember when your elected representatives put this important issue to a vote, you’re not alone. The new directive from the Alcoholic Beverages Division is based on years-old federal regulations written by unelected bureaucrats.

The Food and Drug Administration says copper is potentially harmful when it’s exposed to acidic food or beverage. It cites two studies to back up its copper limits, but neither specifically examined acidic beverages and copper serving containers. One is a 1996 study about metal valves on carbonated beverage machines; the other is a 1979 book about food fermentation.

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a bit more helpful, providing some specific health impacts. Humans can reportedly get short-term nausea and abdominal pain from drinking huge amounts of copper, but serious threats are related to environmental factors and long-term consumption.

The literature might convince you not to serve your child’s daily orange juice in a metal cup, but most booze drinkers likely won’t be fazed.

This may seem like a relatively minor and even well-intentioned case of government overreach, but it’s just one small piece of an overgrown regulatory system that makes our lives less convenient and more costly.

Iowa uses the FDA Food Code as the baseline for its food regulations. The 2013 edition of the code weighs in at 768 pages, up 70 pages from the 2009 version, and still represents only a tiny portion of all the state and federal regulations imposed on businesses and individuals.


Politicians have repeatedly decried the regulatory state, but haven’t made much progress at dismantling it. President Donald Trump referred to FDA regulators during last year’s campaign as the “food police,” but hasn’t pushed the issue since taking office.

Because our regulatory system is so enormous, there’s no opportunity for meaningful public oversight. Consumers and business owners cannot possibly comprehend all of the regulations, let alone do anything about the bad ones.

Iowa’s copper mug crackdown demonstrates the frustrating complexity of regulation. The FDA restriction has been on the books for years, but seemingly nobody knew about it. When officials sent out the notice about Moscow Mules, even a few journalists who cover state government for a living misunderstood and reported it as a new ban.

Our rules are too many for anyone to know, and our rules for making new rules are too complex for anyone to understand.

I don’t drink liquor because it makes me sick, but I’m willing to sacrifice in pursuit of civil disobedience. This weekend, I plan to have my first Moscow Mule, in a copper cup, with extra lime for an acidic kick.

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