Is It Really Illegal to Remove Your Mattress Tag?

Spoiler Alert: It is not. But here's why that warning is on there in the first place.

At some point, most of us have heard that we’re not supposed to remove the tags from our mattresses, under penalty of law. Most of the tags even say something like "It is unlawful to remove this tag!" The tags and the bold act of tearing them off have become a kind of jokey cultural shorthand for oppressive, yet trivial, government regulation and rebellion against it. Jay Leno has joked that his mom is so law-abiding that she checks her tags once a month, and Woody Allen parodied the tags with a story about two drifters who break into a home and slash them off.

You can go ahead and cut the tag off without fear of jackbooted mattress police kicking in your door and hauling you off to the gulag, though. The tag's stern warning is there to protect you, the end user: it's the removal of the tag before the mattress gets to the person that’s going to sleep on it that’s illegal.

Why So Serious?

Take a look at your mattress tag and you’ll see that there’s a lot more on it than just the “don't remove me” warning. The purpose of the tag is to assure consumers that they’re buying a new, never-been-used product and to let them know exactly what’s inside it. The need for this protective label arose in the early 20th century, amid a boom in consumer protection regulations. At the time, mattresses were often constructed with some unsavory stuffing — horse hair, corn husks, food waste, old rags, newspaper, and whatever else a manufacturer could come by were regularly shoved inside. Consumers would never see the stuffing, so no harm, no foul, right? Not really. Some of this stuff harbored bacteria and household pests that gave unwary consumers a not-so-restful slumber.

The government tackled the problem by requiring mattress manufacturers to affix tags to their products that clearly defined their contents. Consumers could then make informed decisions and steer clear of mattresses stuffed with dangerous or gross materials. Listing the “ingredients” right on the mattress put the dirty rag guys at a distinct disadvantage in the marketplace. So to get around the problem, having fulfilled their legal obligation to add the tag, some manufacturers simply tore it off before shipping to retailers. Elsewhere, salesmen ripped them off of slow-moving products to help sales.

The government countered with a new regulation. Tags now had to have the do-not-remove warning, and federal regulations made it unlawful to “remove or mutilate, or cause or participate in the removal or mutilation of, prior to the time any textile fiber product is sold and delivered to the ultimate consumer, any stamp, tag, label, or other identification required” on them. “Any person violating this section,” the regulation continues, “shall be guilty of an unfair method of competition, and an unfair or deceptive act or practice, under the Federal Trade Commission Act.”

The move deterred dishonest mattress dealers, but also confused more than a few consumers, who dutifully left the tags on for fear of prosecution. In recent years, the feds and many state governments have eased the minds of law-abiding citizens by amending the mattress laws so the tags read “this tag shall not be removed except by the consumer.”

So, go ahead, tear that sucker off and sleep easy.

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Big Questions
Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What Legal Authority Does Judge Judy Have?
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While Judith Sheindlin was a real, live judge—New York City Mayor Ed Koch appointed her to family court in 1982 and then made her Manhattan's supervising family court judge in 1986—she's not acting as one on her show. Neither are any of the other daytime TV judges (whether they passed the bar and served as actual judges or not).

TV court shows don't take place in real courtrooms and they don't feature real trials, though they are usually real cases—the producers often contact parties who have pending litigation in small claims court and offer them the opportunity to appear on TV instead. What you're seeing on these TV court shows is really just arbitration playing dress-up in small claims court's clothes.

Arbitration is a legal method for resolving disputes outside the court. The disputing parties present their cases to a neutral, third-party arbitrator or arbitrators who hear the case, examine the evidence, and make a (usually binding) decision. Like a court-based case, arbitration is adversarial, but generally less formal in its rules and procedures.

The power that Judge Judy and the rest of the TV arbitrators have over the disputing parties is granted by a contract, specific to their case, that they sign before appearing on the show. These contracts make the arbitrators' decision final and binding, prevent the disputing parties from negotiating the terms of the arbitration, and allow the "judges" wide discretion on procedural and evidentiary rules during the arbitration.

TV judges make their decision on the case and either decide for the plaintiff, in which case the show's producers award them a judgment fee, or with the defendant, in which case the producers award both parties with an appearance fee. This system seems to skew things in favor of the defendants and gives them an incentive to take their case from court to TV. If they have a weak case, appearing on the show absolves them of any financial liability; if they have a strong case, they stand to earn an appearance fee along with their victory.

If one party or the other doesn't like the arbitrator's decision, it can really only be successfully appealed if it addresses a matter outside the scope of the contract. In 2000, Judge Judy had one of her decisions overturned for that reason by the Family Court of Kings County. In the case B.M. v. D.L., the parties appeared in front of Sheindlin to solve a personal property dispute. Sheindlin ruled on that dispute, but also made a decision on the parties' child custody and visitation rights. One of the parties appealed in court, and the family court overturned the custody and visitation part of the decision because they weren't covered by the agreement to arbitrate.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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