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His products never sickened anyone, he says. And the only time USDA regulators (who were on site at his plant every day) ever took issue with anything Il Mondo Vecchio did in the course of its three years of business, it was a one-time complaint about the use of a different thermometer than the company had been using.
Even that minor violation surprises me. Talking to DeNettis about his efforts to comply with USDA regulations, I found myself quickly overwhelmed by his vast knowledge of the science undergirding his work. In fact, DeNittis sounds less like an old-world sausage maker than he does like some of the geekier food-science faculty I came to know during my time working with them while earning an advanced food-law degree in Arkansas.
DeNittis lost me somewhere between discussing proper pH levels and the requisite average water content of the finished product. While I understood DeNittis’s discussion of the basic science underlying the various pathogenic tests he’s conducted (always with glowing results), details about particular methods like “Alternative 3 LM testing” proved too much for my non-scientific brain.
Suffice to say, DeNittis’s point is this: He knows how to make great sausages. He knows how to do so safely. He tests to make sure. And he knows—or, rather, he thought he knew—how to do all that in a way that complies with USDA regulations.
But to the process-obsessed USDA, DeNittis’s obsession with quality, tradition, local ingredients, and food safety means little, say experts.
“The standards for meat inspection are obviously set up for large scale industrial operations and protocols designed for plants that cannot and do not pay close attention to what goes into their products,” says Prof. Ken Albala, a salumi-obsessed professor of history at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, who is also the author of The Lost Arts of Hearth And Home: The Happy Luddite's Guide to Domestic Self-Sufficiency. “The logic is to correct problems after the fact. The small producer, especially using traditional procedures for curing meat, simply does not have a chance—even when they take every precaution possible. The only solution is to go commando, do it yourself and stop buying mass produced salumi.”
The same disconnect between the small and regulated (on the one hand) and regulators and regulations (on the other) exists throughout the food industry.
The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic report on the regulation of farmers markets that Keep Food Legal commissioned earlier this year found similar process and scalability issues inherent in some of those rules.
As I noted in a Reason column in August after the report’s publication, “the report urges states to replace process-driven regulations—which require a farmer or vendor to follow particular steps—with results-driven regulations that simply require food to be safe. If a farmer can keep meat at a mandated temperature using an ice chest, there is no reason to require her to purchase an expensive refrigerator and generator to achieve the same level of food safety at a much higher cost. Results-driven regulations like these foster the ability of farmers to innovate so long as they meet established food-safety outcomes, helping them to uncover and employ cost-effective procedures that produce the same or better results.”
Those were the results Il Mondo Vecchio had achieved. But the company was still left with few viable choices.
One option the USDA did make available to Il Mondo Vecchio, DeNittis tells me, was to pay $7,000 to conduct a “challenge study”—essentially a test that would prove the USDA wrong. But even that might not be enough for the agency.
“You can do the challenge study,” DeNittis says the agency told him, “but we may not accept the results."
As a consumer, advocate, attorney, and supporter of food entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship, I join DeNittis, Cure Farms, and Il Mondo Vecchio's customers in finding it hard to accept the results of this latest misguided USDA crackdown.