- Asher Price American-Statesman Staff
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller has started a food fight at the Capitol, and the food being slung has a decidedly smoky flavor.
At stake is how much brisket is on your plate.
In an opinion piece published Tuesday in the Texas Tribune, Miller says he wants Gov. Greg Abbott to veto a bill that would exempt from state inspection weights and scales at barbecue joints and other restaurants that sell food.
House Bill 2029 has passed the Texas House 146-1 and Texas Senate 31-0.
According to state Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, the state inspections — carried out by Miller’s Department of Agriculture — are “too burdensome” for restaurants.
But Miller rejects that assessment.
“Horse hockey. As Ronald Reagan said, ‘Trust but verify.’ I trust my local BBQ guy, but I still want to see that when I buy a pound of sausage I’m getting a pound of sausage,” Miller wrote.
“It only costs a BBQ restaurant $35 per year to register that scale,” Miller wrote. “That’s about the same cost as a couple of pounds of brisket. Cowboy logic says that this isn’t about the fee.”
But County Line barbecue owner Skeeter Miller said that’s only the cost to certify the scale itself — and at $35 per scale and about 40 scales at his 10 restaurants, that figure adds up. He said the Agriculture Department also requires him to buy the scales from certified dealers, further escalating the costs.
Skeeter Miller, who began County Line 42 years ago, said the Agriculture Department’s enforcement of his scales is a recent development. He said the crackdown was misguided:“We’re not in businesses to cheat our customers.”
Lozano said the enforcement activity is disruptive to business — and is a way for the agency to raise money.
“You have someone with a badge scaring employees over scales, for a rule they never enforced until recently to raise revenue,” said Lozano, who owns Wingstop franchises in South Texas. “If there’s an outcry from the community, that they’re paying for one pound of barbecue and getting three-quarters of a pound, we’d hear about it. And as a restaurant owner, I know that if we hear about a mistake, we want to correct it immediately — otherwise we risk losing that customer.”
The scale enforcement came as part of an ongoing Department of Agriculture investigation called Operation Maverick, which has targeted scales at buffet restaurants, pawn shops, yogurt shops and barbecue joints, according to Department of Agriculture spokesman Mark Loeffler.
Loeffler said the scale rules have long been on the books but were not enforced by previous agriculture commissioners. He said the money goes back into the weights and measures program.
“Because the Legislature took away the ability to move money between programs within the agency … it’s not about raising money for the budget at all,” said Loeffler. “It’s about enforcing the law.”
Lozano said he counts Sid Miller as a friend and supports his work at the Department of Agriculture, but he said the enforcement of the scales regulations was poorly rolled out.
“It’s wrong to hit all that with a badge,” said Lozano, whose bill was supported by the Texas Restaurant Association. “You should give restaurants a year’s heads-up, give them time to comply.”