Negotiations between District officials and street vendors appear to have resolved a heated dispute that has virtually shut down the sidewalk sale of fresh popcorn for the last seven months.
D.C. Council member John Ray, chairman of the committee that oversees the Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Commission, said hour-long talks on Wednesday have produced a commitment from city food inspectors to change health regulations barring the sale of freshly popped popcorn by vendors.
That news was greeted with relief yesterday by popcorn aficionados, who in many cases have resorted to eating prepackaged popcorn since the downtown vendors were banished last spring.
"The whole thing was just ridiculous," said Adriene Plater, who was a regular customer of a vendor at 15th and L streets NW and who said she was forced to go to the movies to satisfy her popcorn cravings.
The controversy began in April when District food inspectors, concerned about the safety of the vendors' popcorn, started to enforce an obscure ordinance stipulating that only "commercially prepackaged" popcorn could be sold on the streets.
But Ray disagreed with the enforcement policy, and called the "popcorn summit" on Wednesday to bring together the vendors and District officials.
Ray said he didn't believe the popcorn was a health hazard.
"To the extent that there are germs on the popcorn, they're killed when you actually pop the corn," he said. "If they're still living, they must be very tough germs."
Noted Mabel Haden, the lawyer for the popcorn vendors, "Mr. Ray is a country boy. He knows corn isn't toxic."
The crackdown was not a complete success for the city. Many vendors continued to sell popcorn after the ban began, preferring to face fines rather than shut down a profitable business.
In an attempt to prove that the city's crackdown on popcorn was hypocritical in light of the lack of regulations on street sales of hot dogs and half-smokes, Haden brought an "exhibit" to the talks: a large cardboard box used to store hot dogs, which she said pose a bigger health risk.
Haden charged that Robert Beck, the chief of the food inspection division of the Department of Consumer Affairs, was "very archaic in his reasoning" on the popcorn sales.
Beck declined to respond.
Although Ray said he had a verbal commitment from the food inspectors to change the regulations, he threatened to push through emergency legislation to change the rules if the changes are delayed.
David Dragan, who sells popcorn at the corner of 7th and D streets SW, said he was happy that Ray "sided with us."
But Dragan added, "I'm still bitter. I was unemployed for months. The city should be glad I didn't sue them."
"Justice has prevailed," he said, watching a steady stream of popcorn customers. "But they handled it very badly."